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Friday, January 17, 2014

What's A Constitution For Anyway

Friday's post is usually for reviewing a Christian writing/work in order to relate it to what is happening today. But because of some recent debates/discussions regarding the Constitution and our republic, it is necessary to clear up some misconceptions regarding its purpose especially with regard to liberty vs tyranny. And I should note that when writing about what I understand of the Constitution, that though I will make certain assessments, the writers of the Constitution were not a monolith. But at the same time, some themes won out over others and became descriptive of the whole process. 

We should note that understanding the Constitution and its context is important in discussing the role of our government with Conservatives. Why? Because they side with Madison in being against democracy. We should note that Madison was only referring to a pure democracy when he wrote against it. But most Conservatives fear democracy because they are afraid of a tyranny of the majority or, loss of power by the privileged.

The documents being reviewed/consulted here are Henry Knox's letter to George Washington (click here), the Constitutional debates (click here), and Federalist Paper #10 (click here). Now while the Constitutional debates will give a fuller picture of the range of views expressed, Knox's letter and Federalist Paper #10 give a cogent view of what the Constitution was in response to.

What we have to remember is that when the Constitution was being written, America had a class society--see Pinckney's listing of the three classes on the discussion of Monday, June 25. Some thought that the classes would clash with the formation of the national government. Others, including Madison who was the writer of the Constitution, proposed that government be constructed in ways that would protect their own class from emerging threats. In essence Madison's view won out.

But before reading the Constitutional debates or even the Constitution, one should read Henry Knox's letter to George Washington. His letter is one of dire warning that a certain group of people wanted to change the current class system. The changes this group campaigned for included the use of paper money, the elimination of all public and private debts, and agrarian reform, all of which Madison regarded as evil. The argument for agrarian reform was based on the fact that since defense of the land from the British was a joint effort, the land should belong to everybody. We should also note from reading Howard Zinn's preface to this letter that the faction consisted of small farmers who were veterans and were suffering and losing their land because of the reign of the ruling class. This group was referred to as a faction by both Knox in his letter and Madison in the Federalist Paper #10. We should note that Federalist Paper #10's purpose was to persuade people into supporting the Constitution and the republic it described as a defense against this group. 

Thus, when Conservatives say that the intent of the writers of the Constitution was to guard against the tyranny of the majority, while they imply a majority in general, Madison and others had a specific group in mind--the faction of the day. And what that faction challenged was the status quo that benefitted Madison and others in his class so generously.

So the first Constitutional myth busted here was that the republican government, for which the Constitution provided a blueprint, was constructed to protect the people from a tyranny of the majority. Rather, it was to protect the status quo from a specific group of people who lived during that time. And Madison's fear was that this faction, which was at the current time a minority of people, could eventually gain enough support to become the majority of people. So the Constitution was written so that this faction, regardless of its size, could not challenge the status quo while at the same time it established a stronger and secure federal government. Madison argued that if this faction was a minority, then the new republic's majority rule would defeat it. But if the faction consisted of the majority of the people, the new republic's structure would limit the damage which the faction could do.

The second myth that needs to be busted is that Madison & company constructed a weak federal government to protect against a tyranny of the majority. Here we must go to the Constitutional debates and both what Madison was supporting and his apologetic for it. What Madison was supporting here was not the weakening of the federal government, after all, Madison was promoting a stronger federal government that could withstand divisions. Rather, Madison was promoting a proposal that made Senators more immune to democratic pressure. In other words, he was trying to protect against the tyranny of the majority, or really against the changes proposed by a specific group, by strengthening the government against popular opinion.

Though what is written above just slightly scratches the surface, I think it provides enough information to say the following: today's Conservatives' defense of business and the upper x% from regulations and higher taxes which would increase their social responsibility is consistent with Madison's view of at least one purpose of the republic established by the Constitution. That purpose was, in the words of Madison on Tuesday, June 26:
to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority

We should note that our leaders never seem to talk about protecting the minority of the impoverished against anyone. Perhaps this will help some to understand our country's need for structural change.


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