Saturday, June 24, 2006

Contra Constitutional Sentimentalism

Revised June 25
I want to elaborate on a point I make at the end of my essay, "Is the Income Tax Unconstitutional?" Context is crucial (as Ayn Rand often reminded us). It's possible to judge the U.S. Constitution out of its historical context, but it's more useful to judge it in its full context. Had the people of the 13 states moved from life under the British monarchy to life under the Constitution, you might be forgiven for thinking it was an improvement. (Not everyone would agree [King George was much farther away], but leave that aside.) However, that's not what they did. Rather, they moved from life under the king to life under the Articles of Confederation (read it!) to life under the Constitution. Step forward, step back. Not so good. Why the sentimentality?

Disabuse yourself of this sentimentality by spending some time with the Antifederalists here.

Incidentally, why don't we celebrate John Hanson's birthday? He may not have had wooden teeth, and he may not have owned up to chopping down his daddy's cherry tree, but he could make one claim that George Washington couldn't: He was the first president of the United States. As Yogi Berra said, "You could look it up." (Right here, in fact.) There were six others before GW took over. Who had the better PR team?

[Update: If you read the comments, you will see that one kind commenter has corrected me here. Hanson was the third president, although the first to serve a full term and use the title President of the United States. Samuel Huntington was actually the first. Part of the reason this is subject to confusion is that Huntington was president of the Continental Congress before the Articles of Confederation took effect. He stayed on as president of the Congress on March 1, 1781, under the Articles, but was in office only until July 9. Huntington was succeeded by Thomas McKean, who served only until November 4. Thus John Hanson became the first to serve the full one-year term. The presidency was a congressional office; it was not a separate branch of the government.]

Which brings up another item: Americans lived under the Articles for eight years. That's a fair amount of time. The confederation didn't collapse in the first few months or year or two. It lasted nearly a decade. Even then, it didn't fall apart. It was subverted when the men charged with modifying the Articles instead locked themselves away in Philadelphia, tore them up, and wrote a whole new constitution, with terrifying powers delegated to the central government. Albert Jay Nock considered it a coup d'etat.

So why aren't those lost years studied in school? The question answers itself.

One last thing: I hear so many libertarians (not to mention conservatives) say, "If only we could get back to the original Constitution." I'm beginning to lose my legendary patience. I want to shout, "What do you think brought us to this situation? And you want to get back on that bus? No thank you." The actual history throws a whole new light on the "living Constitution" controversy. All constitutions are "living" -- and can't be otherwise -- because no constitution can be self-interpreting and self-enforcing. People interpret and enforce rules, and there's no controlling or predicting how particular people will interpret the rules. Hence, all constitutions "live." If you want your correct interpretation to prevail, you'll just have to find away to become the benevolent dictator. But how do you know you won't change your mind in light of new knowledge? And what happens when you die?

Enough already from the die-hard constitutionalists. Your bed was made in 1787. Now be good enough to lie in it without complaining.

The rest of us have work to do in these United (Former) States of America.

2 comments:

Russell said...

I think Samuel Huntington has a better claim to being the first president of the United States than John Hanson does, as Wikipedia explains. There were apparently two presidents before John Hanson, though Hanson was the first to serve a full one-year term.

Sheldon Richman said...

I stand corrected. Thank you.