“Don’t interfere with anything in the Constitution. That must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties.” —Abraham Lincoln
“The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom.” —Ronald Reagan
The philosophical basis of Constitutional Originalism is that the Constitution was approved by the American people when it was ratified. Thus, the understanding of the Constitution by the people who ratified it is the only valid interpretation. Conservation of the Constitution to ensure the transmission of freedom to future Americans becomes the duty of American civil society. Educating all the people about the principles of how a constitutionally-constrained democratic republic works to promote freedom is a necessary part of maintaining that freedom. People who believe in freedom and embark on this endeavor with a serious mind are often referred to as Constitutional conservatives or libertarians.
Originalists reject the “evolving standards of decency” approach to Constitutional interpretation that allows judges to amend the Constitution at will, based on their own personal views of what the Constitution “should say” instead of what the American people actually approved. Instead, Constitutional Originalism is anchored in an interpretation which can only be changed by the people. If, over time, the people decide they no longer agree with the original wording, the correct procedure is to change out the old words for some new words. If the people do not see fit to change what is written in the Constitution, then a judge certainly has no right to do so.
While Constitutional Originalism—sometimes called the Original Intent Doctrine or Constitutional Conservatism—is often associated with politically conservative scholars, it does not always lead to politically conservative results. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that burning the United States flag was a protected form of expression under the First Amendment. This communicative act, considered by the Court to be protected symbolic speech, is an act generally frowned upon by self-described political conservatives. Yet this promotion of individual freedom is exactly the point of the Constitution in the first place, and Constitutional conservatives applauded the decision, even if doing so did not mean they would choose to act in the manner allowed by the decision.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously characterized the libertarian ideals of Voltaire by saying, “I disapprove with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This kind of thinking was a tremendous influence on the Framers of the Constitution. And what the Constitution is really about, in the end, is preventing what the Founders viewed as the problem of freedom versus tyranny. It is about constraining the government from limiting freedom.
The Blessing of Constitutional Gridlock
The division of power into three discrete arenas of governance is a system of checks and balances intended to make change difficult. Gridlock, unless there is a high level of agreement, is considered desirable. There should be a broad consensus among smaller communities (represented in the House), larger communities (represented in the Senate), and the nation at large (represented by the Chief Executive) in order to make new laws or change old ones. Also, the Judiciary can thwart legislative efforts, if a legal consensus of jurors exists that legislative efforts are not in accord with the Constitution.
Interpreting Versus Rewriting
Personal policy preferences should not be considered when Constitutional interpretation comes into play. When there is any doubt as to what the people were thinking when they approved the original Constitutional language, writings from the time of its inception should be consulted. We are to read out of the Constitution what was put there by those who argued for it and got it approved. We are not to read into the Constitution what we desire or what we think modern-day opinion polling might support.
What each American desires personally, or what polls well with the public, might change over time, but the Constitution remains steadfast in order to give America a consistency and predictability that will guide citizens in the planning of day-to-day activities. Americans need to know it is safe to proceed with their daily business, without fear of sudden changes that could capriciously alter the legalities of their plans and actions. So when is it okay to change something in the Constitution? The Constitution itself says a change can be made when three quarters of the States decide a change is justified or needed. This is a safe enough consensus, and it works well to promote consistency and fairness in the long run.
Constitutional Originalism imposes limits on federal decision-makers, making it difficult to impose their own beliefs on the American people, either through naked executive or legislative fiat or raw judicial power. Compared to the liberal approach, Constitutional conservatism seems not only reasonable, but lacking in political arrogance as well.
President Ronald Reagan, a Constitutional conservative who arguably did more than any other President in the last hundred years to constrain the forces of government and to promote individual liberty, said the following:
“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
President Reagan once said that he did not see the world as having ideas that were “conservative” or “liberal” but instead viewed ideas as being either “up” or “down” in terms of what might be brought about by their implementation. “Up” was what transpired when implementation of an idea brought about more freedom and well-being, as opposed to a greater state role and the canceling out of that freedom. President Reagan championed the Constitution consistently, taking great care not to overstep its limits.
Constraining the Homegrown Tyrant
To their credit, the Founding Fathers of the country realized that the American Revolution was not finished when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The country may have been secure against the British, but was it really secure against tyranny in general? The Founders feared that homegrown tyranny to be the worst threat of all. Without proper safeguards, a native tyrant would eventually rise—an insidious enemy from within that would prove much more difficult to defeat than any force from without. President Abraham Lincoln, himself a Constitutional conservative, once validated this notion when he said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
The surest way to destroy America is to lose sight of the Constitution and to lose respect for its constraints. Such a state of affairs would signal that the time is ripe for American freedom to begin an erosion so dramatic that a full recovery would prove difficult, if not impossible. The antidote to allowing matters to deteriorate to such a level would be a good dose of education with regard to the Constitution and the limits it sets against government intrusion and overreach.
It becomes incumbent upon freedom-loving Americans to support the Constitution and to vote for its supporters and champions at every turn. To do otherwise would be to invite the rise of a new tyranny and to risk the loss of civil society. Americans must never forget that it is civil society and limited government that secure the blessings of liberty.
The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by EagleRising.com