A newspaper editor recently wrote of the difficulty in finding a columnist expressing the constitutional viewpoint. I was impressed that he was making his way through the Federalist Papers and considered it a good read. Probably not as only one in 20 can identify what it is or how it came about.
Today the Federalist Papers would be too deep a read for most college students – even many law school pupils. But it houses the thought processes and debates behind the Constitution, the document that caged the natural tendencies of man more than any governing document in world history. An understanding of the Constitution without this resource is not possible. And because the Constitution is based upon natural law, which does not change, it applies in all generations and in all societies.
Constitutional principles were once taught at every level of education and stories of the sacrifice of our Founders frequently recited with admiration. Today few schools teach these principles in grade school and fewer still in high school. In college U.S. history and political science classes, the Constitution is tucked in the back of textbooks as an appendix, hence few actually read it. The history of the Constitution’s origin is housed in a chapter, but constitutional principles seemingly have only informational value.
Some colleges or universities have courses on the Constitution for political science majors, but almost without exception, students are not required to actually read it, heavy emphasis is given instead to case law. The same is true in law school. Original intent is hardly mentioned. Law schools provide attorneys and judges, most with too little knowledge of original intent. One rogue Supreme Court decision can effectively destroy large chunks of the Constitution, and almost no one notices or cares. Too few understand that the Supreme Court is not the supreme law of the land over the Constitution. The Founders would have never permitted nine justices to destroy foundation principles.
Sadly, I never met one having a doctorate in U.S. history or political science who, to get the degree, actually was required to read the U.S. Constitution in full. Nor have I met a lawyer having to do so either. Case law yes, loads of it, but not the Constitution in full or natural law upon which it is based.
If colleges give no emphasis to constitutional study, how can the nation expect the student to do so either? Several years ago, U.S. News and World Report published a study showing that most Americans could not pass the constitutional questionnaire for citizenship; the public is so constitutionally illiterate. This document is only of minimal value to journalism or communication majors as well. But these professions serve as information filters in newspapers, magazines and radio or television news programs.
The media has divided citizens into two warring groups of liberals and conservatives, lumping constitutionalists and libertarians with conservatives. Traditionally, both major groups solve problems primarily by increasing federal power without specific constitutional authority – if the document is properly understood – and pretends that there exist no other viewpoints. Rarely is original intent allowed into the debate. But the Constitution is the law of the land, and all in authority swear an oath to preserve it.
Former President Barack Obama violated the constitution more than any president in history with former President George W. Bush second. The Tea Party movement, primarily constitutionalists, rose up in 2009 as much against Bush, a conservative, as against Obama, a liberal. It used to matter if a president did not carefully follow the Constitution. Today, both Democrats and Republicans defend their president routinely when he violates it. President Donald Trump certainly is no constitutionalist; although, thus far, he has followed it more closely than any previous president the last 28 years.
Of the two major political parties, the Democrats rarely cite the document and seem almost to have contempt for it. In fact, most of what they propose is easily argued to be outside the Constitution. They used to defend major parts of the Bill of Rights, but I do not see much of that anymore. Republicans sometimes carry the document on their person but do not hold to it. Thus, much of what they propose is also outside of the Constitution, but they do use the word “constitution” more than do Democrats, if that means much.
This generation knows that the Constitution was a good thing and probably should be revered at least historically, but they know little of the principles housed therein and have no idea how to vote to get back to it. This knowledge they will never get from the media, political party or, it seems, not even the institutions of learning – only from private study. That my news editor would find it difficult to find columnists that express the constitutional viewpoint is easily understood, as is the fact that newer columnists who lack this understanding are far more likely to express views in opposition to it.
Constitutional illiteracy is almost universal to the point that those qualified to defend the Constitution as designed are becoming extinct. Students are not likely to defend it if they never experienced it being defended. A real danger exists that if too few know or value its principles we will lose it – perhaps we already have. Some say it is no longer relevant for our times. They are so wrong.
Dr. Harold Pease is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and to applying that knowledge to current events. He taught history and political science from this perspective for over 30 years at Taft College. Newspapers have permission to publish this column. To read more of his weekly articles, please visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.