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Constitutional framers would be astounded by today's arguments

  • Published in Letters

To The Daily Sun,

Watching the left-right quarrel over the limits of government re-erupt on the opinion pages of The Laconia Daily Sun is a sorry, sad scene. In a time of national decline, a persistent, often rude quarrel waged by extremists over the fundamentals of government just adds more rot to the decay.

Except for tiny San Marino (30,000 people on 24 square miles), America is the planet's longest surviving republic. To some that means the American experiment exceeded expectations. Demise is overdue. To others, it demonstrates unequivocal success. The nation will endure in perpetuity. Odds on demise, however, probably increase as leaders manipulate truth for personal gain and an uninformed citizenry accepts and embellishes their altered reality.

The Daily Sun debate is as old as the republic itself. At its heart is a dichotomy in our foundation. Our basic documents — the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — are politically incompatible.

The Declaration touts individual liberty and local sovereignty over centralized, distant dominance. The Constitution promotes nationhood.

History shows we usually cope with our schizophrenia. When we could not, Civil War ensued. Assumptions we are now immune from self-inflicted catastrophe are wishful (if not outright foolish).

The Declaration of Independence lays out the rationale for our existence. It justifies 13 British colonies severing political ties with an empire. The rationale denies legitimacy to governing authorities operating beyond the control of the governed.

In effect, the Declaration of Independence asserts government capable of governing a population scattered "from sea to shining sea," enforcing uniform laws or pursuing national agenda across 50 self-governing states is fundamentally illegitimate.

By late 1777, the Continental Congress that declared independence had designed a government consistent with the Declaration's ideals. Over the next three years, all the states ratified the design, and the United States under the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union" became reality March 1, 1781.

The Articles established a "firm league of friendship" among the states and ensured each retained its "sovereignty, freedom and independence." The national government was a committee of state delegates. It was empowered to conduct foreign affairs, declare war and maintain a military. It could not collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce or enforce laws. Almost immediately, political leaders, beginning with George Washington ("we have errors to correct"), began questioning the utility of the Articles.

More than utilitarian concern, however, drove the founders to question the Articles. During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), an American identity had taken hold. The Articles (with nearly complete deference to state sovereignty) failed to incorporate that spirit.

Multiple efforts to strengthen the Articles failed. Finally, in September 1786 at Annapolis, the states agreed to repair the document once and for all in a "Grand Convention" to be convened the following May at Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, however, the delegates (being Americans) immediately closed the doors and far exceeded their mandate. The "Grand Convention" became the "Constitutional Convention." Instead of trying to fix the Articles, the delegates (now known as "the framers") set them aside and began drafting a new document (and a new nation).

Their challenge was to safeguard personal and states' rights while ensuring the exercise of those rights did not overwhelm the nation's ability to govern itself. Meeting that challenge required the framers embrace and integrate principles into our essence that seem mutually exclusive (individual liberty and collective action). In other words, they framed a government on a contradiction.

The libertarian mindset currently dominating energetic right-wing politics looks at the central government enforcing collective behavior, regulating corporate activity or restricting individual prerogatives and screams "socialism." Although there is some truth in the accusation, they use the word because they know it has a special toxicity in the American psyche.

Intimidated, the progressive wing of American politics cannot muster the courage to engage on the issue. It simply denies the charge, promises more and forfeits the opportunity to make its constitutional case. Too bad: It would astound the framers to learn today's champions of individual sovereignty and state supremacy cite the Constitution as their authority.

As a substitute for engagement on the issue, progressives mock their ideological opponents. This dubious (and strikingly immature) tactic betrays the work of the framers by allowing street protestors, conventioneers and populist political hacks to pontificate state and individual rights over nationhood without reasoned challenge.

The bottom line is America can allow neither libertarian nor progressive ideology to win this debate. It is a tug-of-war between anarchy on the right and despotism on the left. Neither comes to a good end in the absence of cooler heads seeking balance — not in 1787, not in 2013.

Robert Moran