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Sacrilege! Was the American Constitution a good idea?

July 24, 2010

I’m listening to a series of lectures right now from a company called The Teaching Company. They hire renowned professors on a variety of subjects, from history to the arts to the sciences, and record their lectures in a specially-designed hall. The lectures are available as DVDs or as audio. I tend to purchase the audios as mp3 files since they are cheaper and and I can listen while doing other things, like yard work. The series I’m listening to is called “The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution,” by Thomas L. Pangle of the University of Texas at Austin. He lays out the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists at the time of the writing and debates on ratification of the Constitution.

I’m only into the second lecture and it’s already very interesting. Ayn Rand didn’t choose Patrick Henry for the name for the University in Atlas Shrugged at random; he was a devout Anti-Federalist.

One point Professor Pangle already has made is that, if the ratification of the Constitution had been put to a popular vote in the states, it might not have passed. Many people were vehemently opposed to a strong, centralized government. They felt they had just fought a war a decade before to throw off such a government and certainly didn’t want another, even of their own peers!

I believe the Constitution is a brilliantly-conceived document. I believe that, if we stuck to the letter of the law in it, all of us would be far freer and happier. We would never have found our way to the current mess if we had been forced to stay within the confines of a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Yet it did give sweeping powers to a federal government. Was that really in line with what Americans of the late 18th century wanted, or was it what the American “aristocracy” wanted? Did the new federal government really have the right to control as much of the lives of Americans even in 1789 as Americans wanted it to?

Take the Mormons. The “Utah War” was a direct result of a federal government trying to make a territorial government made up of like-minded Mormons fit a model for which they were ill-suited. President Buchanan was ill-prepared to handle such a situation, since even the Constitution did not have provisions for him forcing any behavior from the inhabitants of the territory by military means.

It’s interesting to see that the Mormon question indirectly had something to do with the changes in Congress in the late 1850s, and in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and therefore in the War Between the States.

A “confederacy” would not have given the federal government enough power to do any of these things. Would we have been better off? What about the issue of slavery? That’s an issue for another post at another time.

It’s worth thinking about, my friends, especially today, when it looks as if an upheaval of the whole federal organization might be the only thing to save our freedoms…

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