It’s Time for a National Conversation on the Constitution

Posted: Mar 26, 2012 11:00 PM

In October 2009, when asked about the constitutionality of “Obamacare,” then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”

Yes, Ms. Pelosi, it was serious then, and it’s even more serious now.

What’s not surprising was her reaction. She probably regrets saying what she did, especially after she has had to endure YouTube clip after YouTube clip, and commercial after commercial, showing her memorable little phrase over and over…ad nauseum. The Tea Party sure made her sorry in the 2010 midterm election.

But now it’s time to revisit that phrase, and, more generally, the idea behind it, that the United States Constitution is not a topic for serious discussion, that if you bring it up you’re probably just a “God and guns” clinger, to borrow a phrase from President Obama. It’s time to change that notion.

Now, there’s at least 150 years of history behind Pelosi’s “question” about the seriousness of the Constitution. Intellectually, it comes out the German philosopher Hegel – what’s known as historicism, and what we know as relativism. In American politics, it begins with John C. Calhoun. It gets serious, and very relevant, with the rise of the Progressive era in American politics in the 20th century - FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. And that legacy carries forward to Pelosi, Obama, and the modern liberal agenda.

Take heart: there has always been, and still is, a principled, conservative response that carries on the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers and the principles set forth in our most sacred founding documents. Abraham Lincoln completed the work of the Founders, ridding the nation of the human slavery that, for prudential reasons, America’s Founders found themselves forced to accept. Professor Harry Jaffa, arguably the greatest expositor of Lincoln’s legacy, opens the second chapter of his second great work on Lincoln (“A New Birth of Freedom) by quoting the historian Carl Becker, who once wrote that “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false is essentially a meaningless question.” Meaningless? Was he serious? Was he serious?

Well he was. So was Jaffa’s response, and, so, today, is the response of groups like the Tea Party. One important difference – this is not merely an academic debate. This is a new groundswell of the only sure repository of constitutional authority and sovereignty – the People. But “We the People” must understand that there are serious and important things to know before charging ahead in defense of liberty. We must first understand America’s founding and its principles, why they are true, and therefore why they are worth defending and preserving.

Let’s face it, an education about the Constitution is not the easiest to come by. There are some good books out there, and some good groups helping make sense of it all. But there’s one group with one new, very good program that I think deserves special mention.

It’s from Hillsdale College, and it’s their brand new, 10-week Online Constitution Course called “Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution.” Hillsdale College does a lot of really great stuff, but I’ll mention 3 of the best known that also happen to be my favorites:

1. They publish Imprimis – their free monthly speech digest. It has somewhere near 2.5 million readers, and has published speeches from Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Walter Williams, Paul Ryan, and many other prominent conservatives. That’s not bad.
2. They’re completely independent – they accept not a dime of federal or state taxpayer money, even indirectly in the form of student grants or loans. There’s a whole story about a Supreme Court case from back in the 70’s and 80s’ that resulted in them taking this position.
3. They have a tough core curriculum that all students must complete, and it includes an entire semester of study on the U.S. Constitution.

Number three is the most exciting, I think, because that’s exactly what Constitution 101 is – the same professors who teach their students, delivering the same lectures, and assigning the same readings. And now you get to be one of their students. Plus there are quizzes to test your knowledge, study guides to help you with the lessons, and weekly Q&A sessions where you can submit questions to be answered by the professors. Really great stuff.

The program officially launched on February 20th, but it’s all online and archived so you can catch up and view the material as you have time. Best of all? It’s free. You can give a donation to support the program, but it’s not required in order to sign up. If you’re interested, you can register here.

The course covers such topics as the Declaration of Independence and its connection to the Constitution, how the Constitution is structured to protect individual liberty and ensure good government, the crisis of constitutional government faced by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, and its modern challenges during the "Progressive" era.

If as a nation we want to have a serious conversation about the Constitution, and I think it’s time we do, this is what every American needs to know, especially in this crucial election year.

If you’re looking for a leader, and therefore a partner, in this national conversation on the Constitution, look no further than Hillsdale College.