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This essay continues a series exploring briefly why the Constitution is ineffective at restraining federal officials today, and illustrates how members of the present generation must come to view their relationship to the Constitution if it is to be of service in effectively responding to federal overreach. The series will conclude by highlighting two largely untried and fundamentally different approaches to restoring constitutional constraints; issue-based legislative accountability, and a convention of states to amend the US Constitution.

The Constitution in the 21st Century

The two hundred and forty years of our independence as a nation are replete with examples of times that our constitutional forms were temporarily set aside, and sometimes by our nation’s most revered statesmen. The claim of public necessity was used sparingly at first, but it is now made by presidents with an alarming frequency, and in recent years simply on the grounds that Congress has been slow to act. While the nation was once strict in drawing distinctions between matters of truly dire emergencies and matters of mere presidential impatience, it is claimed by some today that the American people have adopted a much more permissive posture and no longer have need of a Constitution whose primary role is simply to serve as an impediment to progress and “the political will of the people”. The nature of the Constitution as a political document is now readily admitted. What is now more likely to be questioned is whether it is—and should remain—a legal document as well. As Washington forewarned us, we have now reached that point where change by usurpation has become the custom of the land.[1]

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This essay continues a series exploring briefly why the Constitution is ineffective at restraining federal officials today, and illustrates how members of the present generation must come to view their relationship to the Constitution if it is to be of service in effectively responding to federal overreach. The series will conclude by highlighting two largely untried and fundamentally different approaches to restoring constitutional constraints; issue-based legislative accountability, and a convention of states to amend the US Constitution.

Continuous Physical Reconnaissance

One of the lessons drilled into cadets at West Point, until it begins to find its way into their dreams at night, is the absolutely vital requirement to observe friendly obstacles on the battlefield. Army doctrine on this is as straightforward as it is inflexible: “Continuous physical reconnaissance of protective obstacles is extremely critical. Units must keep protective obstacles under continuous observation at all times” (Army Field Manual 90-7).

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On January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson received a thirteen-foot mammoth cheese weighing some 1,200 pounds.  It was delivered by dissenting Baptist minister and long-time advocate of religious liberty, Reverend John Leland, who then preached a sermon to the president and members of Congress at the Capitol two days later.  Jefferson took the opportunity to compose a letter to the Danbury Baptists on the relationship between government and religion that would shape the course of twentieth-century jurisprudence. Read more

At the end of his second presidential administration, after forty-five years serving America, President Washington did not want to leave without imparting some final guidance and wisdom. To do so, Washington, working from drafts written by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, wrote a letter to the American people titled “The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America, on his Declining the Presidency of the United States” and more popularly known as “Washington’s Farewell Address.” Read more

President George Washington’s famous letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island” of August 18, 1790, is a response to a letter of the previous day penned by Moses Seixas on behalf of Congregation Yeshuat Israel. Seixas’s letter gives thanks to God for the religious liberty afforded at last by a government “erected by the Majesty of the People” and an “equal and benign administration.” This, after centuries of persecution and oppression of the descendants of Abraham by governments worldwide. Read more

The Constitution

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights.  Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.

If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights. Read more

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics & American Republican Government

After George Washington was sworn-in as the first president of the new American republic on April 30, 1789, he delivered his First Inaugural Address to the people’s representatives in Congress.  He started the speech with his characteristic humility, stating that although he wished to retire to Mount Vernon and did not have the requisite skill to govern a country, he was nevertheless answering the call of his country.  The address struck a distinctly Aristotelian chord in Washington’s wishes for his country.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, describes his understanding of the basic nature of man.  Humans are rational creatures, he maintains, and must use that reason to exercise self-restraint over their passions.  That same rationality allows humans to be ethical, Read more