Constitution authors: hypocrites or geniuses? Turns out, neither

I have a confession to make. The Constitution compels me to rip out what remains of my hair.

Not for what it is, of course. As a conservative, I have a well-established love of the document, what it means and what it represents. I think that for all its flaws, it and particularly the Bill of Rights, is an ingenious and invaluable advancement in self-government and personal liberty for the world.

No, what drives me up the wall about the Constitution is the inane cacophony of rhetoric that surrounds it from virtually anyone who talks about it. It is quite simply impossible for me to listen to any political speech – from either the left or the right – without wanting to stab myself in the eardrums, just to end the misery.

By my estimation, there are two schools of thought about our most important founding document. The first is that it is an infallible and eternal document of great wisdom, bestowed upon us by wise men whose ability to design a society was unmatched. The second is that it is a piece of paper to be paid attention to only when it is convenient to justify certain political beliefs.

Conservatives fall into the former category, particularly in the last few years. Go to any rally with a group of Republicans, and you will hear the Constitution spoken about with reverence in speeches and conversations.

To these conservatives, it is simply beyond question that “the founders” were ingenious and infinitely more talented in creating the social order than we are today. You will hear an endless parade of people imploring our country to simply “follow the Constitution” and blaming the ills of American society on our failure to do just that. To question any part of the Constitution as outdated or wrong is heresy.

Nevermind that the founders themselves had radically different ideas about how to organize their infant country. Nevermind that they fought over those ideas and that the entire document is one compromise after another. Nevermind that Thomas Jefferson himself suggested that no single generation had the right to dictate the terms of a society’s government to their posterity and that a republic should reorganize itself fairly frequently.

To the liberal, there is no question that the founders were an ancient, unenlightened crew of hypocrites with no particular insight or talent for developing a modern, progressive society. Go to any liberal rally, and you will hear about disdain for “old, slave-owning white men” and open contempt for the rules contained within the Constitution.

In the debate over the president’s health care law, this couldn’t have been any more clear. When presented with an argument that suggested that the law was unconstitutional, the knee-jerk reaction of most liberals was to say something to the effect of, “Oh, so then you think poor people with pre-existing conditions should just die on the street then?” As if that has any relevance to the question of constitutionality.

Furthermore, liberal academics and justices have had a long and uncomfortable history of trying to take established constitutional law and “interpreting” it in new ways to fit their worldview. So-called “judicial activism” is certainly prevalent on the right, but it is indeed the hallmark of the left.

Just once I would like to see a conservative stand up and say that no matter how brilliant the founders were, society has changed to a degree that requires re-evaluating some of those long-established rules. Just once it would be refreshing to hear: “Yes, we should follow the Constitution, but we should also change it to reflect the changing world around us.”

And just once I would like to see a liberal stand up and say that no matter how misguided and wrong they believe the Constitution to be, that we need to follow it to the letter, even if it means someone’s pet legislation isn’t constitutional. Just once I think it would be refreshing to hear, “We should enact this law, but we can’t yet because it isn’t constitutional, so we need to amend the Constitution.”

Ultimately, that’s what I want. A fidelity to, and respect for the absolute law that is our governing document, as well as a willingness to admit its shortcomings and change it when necessary. But I’m not holding my breath that I will ever see such a thing.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.