A doctrine ‘most false and unfounded’

America’s great national holiday is July 4 — celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But how long did that confederation of sovereign states, founded to fight the Revolution, really last?

Only the brightest of today’s young scholars are likely to recall that it passed away after only a dozen years, on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution.

With Mr. Jefferson safely off in Paris, Alex Hamilton and the gang moved heaven and earth to convince a skeptical public that the stronger new central government they proposed would never grow powerful enough to take away any of their hard-won freedoms.

(Kids are taught in school the Articles of Confederation weren’t working because, among other indignities, seaboard states were charging extortionate duties on goods trans-shipped to landlocked states. But the first landlocked state, Vermont, wasn’t admitted till years later, in 1791.)

No, no, the new central government’s powers would be sharply limited to those expressly spelled out in the new founding document — funding a Navy, granting patents and copyrights, coining metal money. Not much more.

Fast forward 220 years. As a recipe for limited government, this Constitution now matches the creature it’s supposed to describe about as well as a Chihuahua’s carry-on “Pet Kennel” would fit a loping Irish wolfhound.

The prima facie proof of this failure now stares at us from every acre of the former marshland north of the Potomac, a granite necropolis and memorial park to our deceased freedoms at least a hundred times larger in manpower and frenzied ambition to control our lives than Mr. Jefferson could ever have imagined.

Is there any remaining hope, today, for our fragile liberties?

What hope remains is thanks to the fact that Rhode Island and North Carolina (bless them) outright refused to ratify the new Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added — while Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York all ratified only on the condition that some such set of amendments be quickly appended.

And so, on the day we should probably celebrate as our second great national holiday, on Dec. 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify those solemnly promised first 10 amendments — Mr. Madison’s “Bill of Rights” — though a better name might be the “Bill of Prohibitions” on government conduct.

On Thursday, the anniversary again passed largely unnoticed. But the Bill of Rights is still important, not only because it’s still in force as the highest law of the land, but because it reminds us that ours was and is supposed to be a government of sharply limited powers.

In fact, the main concern of those drafting the first eight amendments was that someone, someday, might take these to be our only rights guaranteed against government trespass.

That’s why — in an attempt to placate such vociferous anti-federalists as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee — Mr. Madison and friends dutifully added the brief but vital Ninth and 10th Amendments, specifying that, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Anything our ancestors were free to do in 1788 — without seeking any government “license” or “permit” — we’re supposed to remain free to do today.

Now, modern fans of totalitarianism, coached by the slyest of lawyers and unionized youth-camp schoolmarms, will argue that the preamble to the Constitution advises us the purpose of the document is to “promote the general welfare,” whereupon they will contend this plainly means Congress is allowed to enact any law and do any thing which a temporary majority of the two houses shall determine tends to “promote the general welfare.”

But that’s not true. If it were true — if the Constitution means “Congress can do anything that a majority thinks is for the general welfare,” then why doesn’t the document just end there? Why does the Constitution go on for page after page, itemizing the specific, limited powers of the central government?

One of the best and most authoritative answers to this cynical justification for unlimited, Bonapartist tyranny was provided in the final year of his life by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson himself, in the “Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825.”

“We … disavow and declare to be most false and unfounded, the doctrine that the compact, in authorizing its federal branch to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States, has given them thereby a power to do whatever they may think or pretend would promote the general welfare, which construction would make that, of itself, a complete government, without limitation of powers; but that the plain sense and obvious meaning were, that they might levy the taxes necessary to provide for the general welfare by the various acts of power therein specified and delegated to them, and by no others.”

It’s not really that hard to read, even for someone handicapped by a modern government-school education.

If you can’t find written down in the Constitution any specific, articulated power to proscribe or regulate our commerce in cocaine, marijuana, opium or “every terrible instrument of the soldier” (Tench Coxe, Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788) — if you can’t find written down in the Constitution any specifically articulated federal power to dictate how many miles per gallon our cars must achieve, or how big our toilet tanks may be, or what the “minimum wage” shall be, or whether a land owner may drain a swamp or kill any weeds or bugs he pleases on his own property, or what kind of filaments we must use in our light bulbs, or whether private power companies may burn coal to make electricity, or what our state speed limits may be — then the central government HAS no such powers.

What’s that? The Founders tolerated chattel slavery? That was changed by AMENDMENT. When did we pass an AMENDMENT to authorize the “War on Drugs” or a de facto ban on private ownership of machine guns and hand-held missile launchers? If we live under a system where the government has only such powers as are delegated to it by the people, then the people must have delegated to the government the power to possess all the terrible weapons they now routinely use. How could we delegate a right we do not have? How can the servant disarm the master?

When the founders wrote the Constitution to limit allocations to raise an army for war to no more than two years, did they really envision leaving troops in Korea or Germany for 60 years, with Congress simply re-upping the authorization 30 times in a row, over two generations? No. They clearly meant to make the “stand-down” the normal state of affairs, to require (at the very least) an intense biennial debate intended to prevent the establishment of any “standing” military-industrial complex, knowing full well any such permanent institution would be constantly looking for new places to use up their stockpiles. (If we have to attack Iran because they’re supposedly trying to build a nuke, when do we get around to France, South AfrIca, Israel and the Ukraine?)

When the Founders said my house could be searched only upon presentation of a warrant signed by a judge who had received an affidavit sworn under oath, did they envision cops showing a warrant only AFTER they break down the door and shoot the surprised occupants? That cops who make misrepresentations about “probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation” should never be prosecuted for that offense, meaning they can pretty much be as careless as they like (listing information about some OTHER “Trevon Cole” before breaking into the home of the unarmed small-time Vegas pot dealer and killing him in his bathroom, for instance)?

These provisions are all still there in our Constitution, as amended by the integral Bill of Rights, which Barack Obama and every member of Congress have sworn to “preserve and protect.”

I believe it was the late columnist Joe Sobran who once said that a government under the U.S. Constitution would not be ideal — it would just be a whole lot better than the one we’ve got now.

3 Comments to “A doctrine ‘most false and unfounded’”

  1. liberranter Says:

    Another home run, Vin. Would that we could get the pigheaded sheeple not members of the choir to read and heed.

  2. J. Brook Says:

    On a scale of 0 to 10, how much do each of the presidential hopefuls actually understand Constitutional history? Any of them score above a 1 or 2? I wonder.

  3. FreakMeister Says:

    Oh Vin, quit overreacting. What’s the problem with some Control Freaks in government doing as they please? I’m sure they’re just doing what is best for us. Why can’t you quit being so paranoid? You remind me of Patrick Henry when he refused to attend the 1787 convention to amend the Articles of Confederation by saying, “I smell a rat!”

    Surely he wasn’t speaking of Washington, Hamilton or Madison?