Ignorance or Contempt?

Walter E. Williams

6/6/2001 12:00:00 AM - Walter E. Williams
Congressmen, presidents and Supreme Court justices take an oath of office swearing to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution. As if the Constitution itself isn't clear about what they must do, in Federalist Paper No. 45, James Madison, the acknowledged father of the Constitution, described the document thusly: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation and foreign commerce. ... The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives and liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State." Both Madison's statement and the Constitution leave no doubt about the "few and defined" powers delegated to the federal government and the "numerous and indefinite" powers retained by the people and the states. I'd like to ask our 535 congressmen, our president and our nine Supreme Court justices which word or phrase in Madison's statement they find beyond comprehension, and which phrase in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which outlines what Congress is permitted to do, they find beyond comprehension. While congressmen, presidents and Supreme Court justices don't have much understanding, they aren't stupid -- which isn't to say they're not ignorant about the Constitution and other matters. Let's explore the most charitable explanation for their day-to-day violations of both the letter and the spirit of our Constitution, namely that they're ignorant. But, I seriously doubt the suitability of ignorance as an explanation. Why? If ignorance were the explanation, I'd be optimistic. I'd simply send the president, congressmen and Supreme Court justices James Madison's Federalist Paper No. 45, explaining the Constitution. After that, they'd mend their ways and eliminate most federal programs, state mandates and other gross constitutional violations. You say, "Williams, if you think they'd do that, you've got to be crazy!" You're right -- I would be crazy. The only other explanation for what presidents, congressmen and justices do is that they have contempt for the Constitution. But that's only a tiny part of the sad story. Imagine if James Madison or Thomas Jefferson were campaigning for the presidency in 2000. What would you think about their chances? They'd clearly lose if they expressed the constitutional values and respect they had when the document was written. They'd clearly be denounced by most Americans and possibly risk assassination. Therefore, before we rush to lay the complete blame for constitutional contempt at the feet of politicians and judges, we might want to look at ourselves -- we, the American people. That is, politicians are doing what we elect them to office to do, and if our Constitution stands in the way, it's the Constitution that must yield. The Constitution stands in the way of government programs such as business bailouts, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Title I education programs and thousands of other federal acts. You might ask, "Why should we pay any attention to a 200-year-old document?" I'd say to escape Thomas Jefferson's prediction that "the natural progress of things is for government to gain ground and for liberty to yield." After all, if we ignore the constitutional protections found in Article I, Section 8, why not ignore other constitutional protections and make them just as meaningless? If we continue our current path, future generations will curse us for squandering unprecedented liberty.