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).
To a civilian, unfamiliar with what takes place on a battlefield, this may not be intuitive. After all, if I place a minefield and barbed wire on a stretch of road, isn’t my purpose to close off the road so that I don’t have to worry about it anymore? To a military officer, the answer is “No.” Any unguarded obstacle on the battlefield can—and will—be defeated by a determined enemy. The most formidable cliff can be scaled, the widest chasm bridged, and the thickest slab of concrete turned to rubble, if an obstacle remains unguarded for a sufficient amount of time.
Knowing this, the purpose of placing concrete barriers, barbed wire, and minefields is never to permanently close off an avenue of approach to an enemy. Rather, its purpose is to slow the enemy down long enough for forces to be mobilized against him, or to fix the enemy in a place where he can be attacked and destroyed. A minefield, with no one assigned to keep watch over it, accomplishes neither of these two things. If the enemy wants to badly enough, the minefield will eventually be cleared in one way or another.[i] And if no one is observing the minefield while it is being cleared, the opportunity to take advantage of the enemy’s slow progress, to either destroy him or to force his retreat, will have been entirely lost. To serve its purpose, each obstacle on the battlefield must be watched continuously, and an alarm sounded the moment an enemy approaches it.
As former military commanders, this was a principle that Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson knew well and highlighted in their respective farewell addresses to the nation:
But you must remember, my fellow-citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government…and unless you become more watchful in your States…you will in the end find that the most important powers of Government have been given or bartered away… (Andrew Jackson’s Farewell Address – March 4, 1837)
Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown…The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them…let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. [emphasis added] (Washington’s Farewell Address – September 17, 1796)
While President James Madison did not possess the battlefield experience of Washington and Jackson, he shared with them an intimate understanding of the role that citizens would have to play in protecting and maintaining the barriers that the Constitution put in place. Even before the Constitution was written, he explained:
…[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. (James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments; June 20, 1785)
While no man was more personally invested in bringing about the various checks and balances within the Constitution, Madison did not for a single moment place his faith in the various checks and balances to be able to preserve liberty by themselves. He argued that, for free government to be preserved, the various limitations on power would need to be scrupulously maintained. Further, it is the first duty of American citizens to be alert to any “experiments” that might impinge on the rights of the people and on any attempts to overreach “the great Barrier” that defended those liberties.[ii] Without citizens to actively patrol the ramparts, what good is a moat, a drawbridge, or even the fortress itself?
More recently, Albert Einstein observed: “The strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defense are the constitutional rights secure.”[iii] The inescapable message from these four Americans; Washington, Jackson, Madison and Einstein—each of whom swore an oath to defend the United States Constitution—is that the rights protected by the Constitution are not secure. They remain insecure because no mere document, however carefully constructed, is capable of securing them. No Maginot Line of checks, balances and limits, however formidable, can bring to a final end the unrelenting tendency toward the consolidation of power in government.
Eventually, each obstacle that the Constitution sets up will be overrun, or simply bypassed, unless it is vigilantly observed and guarded by those who feel duty bound to defend our constitutional rights against usurpation. It is not enough to vote on Election Day. It never has been. Those who encourage Americans to register to vote, as though voting comprised the exclusive sine qua non of their civic duty, do all of us a disservice. If we are to take anything from the Founders, it must be that maintaining a free government requires much more than occasional action. The Constitution must be made known and it must be defended.
David Eastman is a graduate of West Point and a former Captain in the United States Army. He has served at all levels of US government; city, county, borough, state and federal, and in each case was obliged to take an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution; He is a co-founder of Tax Our Kids, which advocates for sustainable government spending on behalf of future generations of Alaskans. He lives with his family in Wasilla, Alaska.
[ii] James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments”, June 20, 1785.
“The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.”
[iii] Albert Einstein, in a letter to the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee; March 3, 1954.
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