Constitutional Oversights

I have blogged in the past about the failures of the authors of the U.S. Constitution to anticipate the immense power of great wealth in this country which has resulted in the present shut-down in government — following directly from the obedience of our elected officials to those who have provided the bulk of the immense amounts of money required to place them in office. This, of course, results in allegiance to those to whom much is owed and to the Party they support, making cooperation with those across the aisle nearly impossible.  These things were not, indeed they could not have been, anticipated by the authors of our Constitution writing in the eighteenth century.

At a time when the U.S. Senate was not elected but appointed by state legislatures, often at the beck and call of vested interests, Henry Adams hoped that President Grant would initiate steps to remedy at least one shortcoming of the Constitution; namely, the extraordinary power vested in a Senate that was not responsive to the electorate. This resulted in a corrupt Senate with considerable power coupled with the inability of the executive to get much of anything done, a problem that persists to this day. Adams was disappointed, and the improvements he hoped for in the Constitution never came to fruition. Indeed, despite the addition of a few amendments from time to time, the possibility of opening serious discussion about the revisions necessary in what has become a sacred, albeit dated, document have never been seriously considered. In fact, the mention of even minor changes to that document strikes many as heresy.

Now, when one goes back and reads the statements of those closely connected with the writing of our Constitution one realizes that they themselves thought that the document would be updated and improved from time to time as a matter of course. It was never regarded as written in stone. One merely has to read the Federalist Papers written by Madison, Hamilton, and John Jay to persuade New York to ratify the document, to realize how open to suggestion and change were those who first conjured up the document which was, at the time, designed to keep the colonies together (by allowing such things as slavery, for example) and mitigate against the separatism that was beginning to tear them apart soon after the revolution. One especially concerned spectator who worried that Europe would get the last laugh, and who was determined to prove that the Republic would hold together despite this factionalism, was George Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention for the four months during which the Constitution was written. He penned a most interesting document to his friend Lafayette, lauding the document and pointing out its merits.

“First, that the general government is not invested with more powers than are indispensably necessary to perform the functions of a good government, and consequently, that no objection ought to be made against the quantity of power delegated to it.

“Secondly, that these powers, as the appointment of all rulers will for ever arise from and, at short, stated intervals recur, to the free suffrages of the people, are so distributed among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches into which the general government is arranged, that it can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any other despotic or oppressive form so long as there shall remain any virtue in the body of the people.”

Fascinating! What jumps out, of course, is his preoccupation with the limits of governmental power coupled with the presumption, which Washington shared with most of those who helped put the document together, that citizens would act “virtuously” — which was an Enlightenment notion that focused on what was regarded as the natural desire of civilized people to live together, to put the common good above their own private good.  This strikes us today as incredibly naive. But, as Washington saw it, along with brief terms in political office, civic virtue was a necessary condition if the country was to avoid “despotism.”

And it is precisely despotism that has replaced the Republic that the founders had in mind. Whether it was because of the disappearance of civic virtue or the rise of incredible wealth in the hands of a few unscrupulous, greedy men and giant corporations is a moot point. I suspect it is a combination of the two. After all, what is the citizen supposed to do about choosing enlightened leadership when those with great wealth hand-pick politicians who will carry out their own private agendas?

Clearly, as I have noted in previous posts, what we now have in an oligarchy, and it is precisely the type of thing the founders were convinced they had guarded against. A radical alteration of the Constitution curtailing the influence on the wealthy on elections might restore this country to a Republic, but this will never happen as long as those who might engineer those changes see them as threatening their own power and prestige. Washington’s supposition, shared with the authors of the Federalist Papers, that politicians would serve short terms has also given way to career politicians who hold their offices interminably (literally) and, in order to assure themselves of a continuance in office, simply carry out the programs set out for them by those wealthy few who have had them elected and will keep them in office. Thus, while the time is long overdue for radically rethinking the Constitution, it will not happen. Even a necessary first step, such as the adoption of an amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s abortive decision in the Citizen’s United case giving corporations unlimited access to the reins of government, is extremely unlikely. It’s a Catch 22.

 

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