You Can Write It Down...

. . . but why bother?

Like any religion, American government has its holy books: We call them the Constitution and the Federalist Papers instead of Torah and Talmud or Bible or Q'uran. And, as with any religion, various schools of thought ' Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene; Sunni, Sufi, Shiite, Wahabbe; Catholic, Protestant; Original Intent, Strict Construction, 'Constitution in Exile' -- purport to interpret the Sacred Texts and to hold the key to their True Meaning.

The difference between theistic religions and the cult of the state is that among the former, the different groups are empowered to carry on their theological struggles and to put their ideas into action. Even though blood may be shed or religious edicts given force of law, there exists an actual arena in which persuasion can achieve actual change, which can then manifest itself in the actions of the persuaded. This is not the case with the cult of the state: There is no argument of fact which will result in real, substantive change within the cult itself.

Clarification is, I think, in order. A number of individuals and groups dedicate themselves to the notion that there is a 'true meaning' to the Constitution which has been a) intentionally discarded, b) unintentionally overlooked or c) badly misunderstood. From this surmise, they reach the proposition that, through a proper legalistic exegesis of that Holy Scripture, The United States can be set back on a course of 'proper government' -- a course which they generally believe the framers of the Constitution to have advocated.

You know who I'm talking about:

  • 'The tax resister who relies upon old Supreme Court rulings, 'proof' that the Sixteenth Amendment was never ratified, or missing/misinterpreted verbiage in the Internal Revenue Code.
  • 'The 'citizen of [insert state here]' who insists that the 14th Amendment created a new class of 'citizen,' that there exists a meaningful distinction between 'the United States ' and 'the States,' and so on.

There are more ' many more. As a matter of fact, I hold that anyone who claims to find support for their rights . . . any of their rights . . . anywhere in the Constitution . . . is missing the point.

I was once a Constitutionalist. To the extent that I perceive possible benefit in trying to hold the state to its own purported rules, I guess I still am. But I should know better, and so should you. The game is rigged, and it has been from the start. As Benjamin Franklin said at that time, 'our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.'

Franklin was wrong, but only slightly so. The Constitution did in actuality confer a certain permanence ' or, rather, a restoration. It was a restoration of the monarchist substance, albeit in a republican form. It was a document created by, and for, aristocratically-minded framers who had no more intention of honoring its purported purposes than King John had of honoring Magna Carta.

To the average American ' even to the average libertarian ' the above must smack of heresy. It is, nonetheless, fact. The federalists, in particular Alexander Hamilton, longed for a more centralized government for the purpose of enshrining power and giving it permanence. Having unleashed Revolution on the continent, they now longed to bottle it back up and put it on a convenient shelf.

In order to do so, they had to get around the Articles of Confederation, which had pretty much allowed the states to shift for themselves ' and which provided for their own perpetuity. The Constitutional Convention was a successful, but plainly illegal, end-run around the Articles. It was the counter-Revolution -- the American Thermidor before the French. Any reasonably thorough history of the nation will allude to this fact . . . but generally only in passing.

The anti-federalists made these points at the time. They were heard, and the ratification of the Constitution (by a process which itself made no obeisance to any legality) was a close thing. In order to achieve it, the federalists pasted on their fake smiles, pointed to their own Revolutionary records, and plaintively appealed to the public to trust them. They threw out the necessary bones (the largest and meatiest being the Bill of Rights), knowing in advance that the flesh would soon be gnawed from those bones, and proceeded to betray the trust they'd requested before the ink had dried on that document.

This, of course, is all water under the bridge . . . and that's very much the point. Many among us cling to the belief that the problem with American government is some late deviation from the Constitution as 'originally intended' or 'strictly constructed' or 'exiled.'

In fact, the Constitution was 'originally intended' to seduce American liberty back under the yoke of the state; it was 'strictly constructed' as a charter of authority versus freedom; and any notions to the contrary were driven 'into exile' from the very beginning. The suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Acts soon followed. The Supreme Court's usurpation, in Marbury v. Madison, of the power to interpret an allegedly plain charter were nothing more than ribbons and bows affixed to the gift of power for the political class. Final delivery of that gift took awhile ' the knock on the door was probably the War Between the States ' but delivered it was.

We got screwed. It's just that simple. A successful revolution was followed by a successful counter-revolution . . . and the counter-revolutionaries conveniently forgot to let us know. They were content, and still are, to humor the serfs. After all, a man who thinks he's free hasn't much incentive to rebel for his freedom, does he?

Which brings me back to our religionists ' the rough equivalent of the Dissenters in Restoration England, who believe that a more primitive, pure truth may be discerned in the Sacred Text than is lent to it by the Established priesthood. It's easy to sympathize, even to empathize, with them. But what they're missing, what they fail to understand, is that the cult of the state is not about truth . . . it's about power. And possession, as they say, is nine tenths of the law.

To the (small) extent that the Constitution may still be adhered to, and to the (even smaller) extent that that adherence may be directed to the benefit of freedom, we might as well use it. But let's not kid ourselves. The political class will not surrender its stolen power because its opponents come up with a better argument, a more historically accurate understanding, or a more accurate textual analysis. The problem is not a failure of adherence to the Constitution. The problem is the Constitution ' or any other structure of state power.

The only way to get freedom is to take it. You can write that down.

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Thomas L. Knapp's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Thomas L. Knapp is publisher of Rational Review.