Absurd notions about the Constitution

2010 June 6
by ruleoflawrestoration

I am frequently troubled by absurd assertions about our Constitution…things that seem to be repeated with increasing regularity and that threaten to become foundational platitudes in our nation’s political (un)awareness.  I thought I’d address a few of these today

Plain Meaning?

…when I taught about the Constitution, I emphasized the ambiguity and vagueness of the document.  In short, there is no “plain meaning”.

I’ve heard this argument more than a few times, yet it never fails to offend logic and fact.  Let’s examine a few points.

1. Is it never clear?

We must determine for starters whether such an assertion constitutes the logical fallacy of faulty generalization. Yes, there are some passages, the meaning of which has been hotly debated.  Does that mean, however, that no passage is clearly understood?

Let’s look quickly at a couple of examples straight from the text to see whether anything in the Constitution is indeed clear and unambiguous.

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States… (Article I, Section 1)

Isn’t the plain meaning of this text that the Congress is the only segment of government with the power to write laws?  If this is not the plain meaning, then what alternatives interpretations might we reasonably suggest?  Indeed, how could we possibly get around this clause in an effort to support or to justify the idea of the Supreme Court or of the President writing laws?

Or consider this example:

The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States,… (Article I, Section 2)

From the plain meaning of this clause, we can conclude that:

  • The House shall be composed of members.
  • Those members are chosen by the people.
  • The elections are to be every two years.

Is there anything un-plain here?  I think not.  And so begins an exercise that could take all day, going through the Constitution line by line looking for the many, many instances of plain and unambiguous language.

The irresponsible suggestion at hand, however, is that the entire document is ambiguous and that none of it can be understood. You and I, therefore, are supposed to throw our hands into the air and surrender any ambition in the matter.  This notion, however, is demonstrably false and should be summarily rejected.  I don’t mean to suggest that all passages are perfectly clear; rather, I mean to set this conversation on responsible terms, denying the attempt of the adversary to frame it in false terms.  So right off the bat, the facts should compel the naysayer to amend “…there is no plain meaning” to read “…the plain meaning of some passages is debated.

Such a statement as that, however, would invite the reasonable question, “Which passages are those?”.  And upon identification of such, a rational discussion could ensue.  Rational discussion, however, is generally not the hope of  the “no plain meaning” camp.  Rather, they seem intent upon shutting down the conversation altogether.

2. Debate does not prove ambiguity.

When I’ve had this discussion with people in the past, I generally note an assumption that debate over the plain meaning of a passage in the Constitution is proof that the passage is ambiguous.  This, too, is a logical fallacy: a non sequitur, to be more specific.  It simply does not follow that debate proves ambiguity.  One has only to witness two six-year-olds playing Go Fish to see unambiguous rules being “debated”.  Yet the rules are clear.  And so with the bulk of the Constitution.

Have you ever noticed, by the way, that when the meaning of the Constitution is debated, that debate is almost always instigated by someone in government who is seeking to defend a governmental power that is not clearly authorized by the Constitution?   Rarely, it seems, do they seek to amend the Constitution in the prescribed manner so as to create a new lawful power.  Rather, they take the easier route, attempting first to argue that some vague authority exists where no such authority is to be found in the plain meaning of the text.

Debate only proves that the will to debate exists.  It does not prove that ambiguity exists

3.  Words, by nature, have plain meaning.

Regardless of what one thinks about those who drafted our Constitution, we must freely admit that what has been delivered to us has been delivered in written form.  It is a document.  It is not a mood or a feeling or a wish or a hope or a sentiment, but a document with a finite set of words.  And words, by their very nature, have plain meaning.  Even when words have multiple variations of definition, those variations are limited in number and can reasonably be narrowed down, limiting ambiguity considerably.

I heard a story about a college professor who was regaling his students before class with his favorite hunting stories.  One student objected that people ought not to eat animals.  The professor’s clever rebuttal was something like this: “If God didn’t mean for man to eat animals, how come he made the animals out of meat?”

I use this humorous anecdote to raise a similar question:  If the Constitution was not mean to be understood, how come it is made up of words?

Words, you see, have meanings, most of which are unambiguous most of the time.  The words in our Constitution came about as the result of the debate between varying political factions seeking to design a system of government to which all could agree.  It is silly, therefore, to opine that they would put forth a finished product that was intentionally ambiguous throughout.  Indeed, which of the delegates would have voted for something that they thought would or could be used against their own best interests?

Therefore, we are left with the highly-reasonable assumption that they wrote in the Constitution what they intended to convey, and nothing else.

4.  If it’s unclear, why not fix it?

Have you ever noticed that for every 100 people saying the Constitution is unclear about something, there are approximately zero suggesting that we amend it to be clear?  Why is this?  Could it be because they are not actually interested in maintaining the rule of law, but only in having their way, justifying it by whatever means are available? In other words, practically all of this “debate” boils down to “…well, the Constitution doesn’t say we can’t do this, so therefore, we can!”

Really?  Is it that simple?  Then why do you kick and scream when “the other party” is in power and uses the same justification to do something that you know in your heart of hearts is in excess of the powers granted them in the Constitution?  Whether it’s “health care reform” or the USA Patriot Act, both major parties are eager to argue that government is free to do as it pleases, absent an explicit prohibition in the Constitution.

Now, they may not always express it that way.  Indeed, they often claim that the “General Welfare Clause” in the Constitution’s Preamble is justification for this or that power that is otherwise un-enumerated in the Constitution.  But even so, where is the movement to amend the Constitution to allow for either so that it will be clear?

This whole tactic is a lie.  It suggests, rightly, that Constitutional authority is needed for government to act, and it suggests rightly that specific text must be cited in support of an act, but when it comes to citing that specific text, we discover that the specific meanings of words are suddenly to be ignored altogether.  There is no brighter example of this than the “General Welfare Clause”, the “general” part of which is conveniently ignored in favor of governmental acts that serve to the welfare of only specific interests, and not of the general interests of the nation.  In other words, this particular act contributes to the welfare of my company or your special interest group, and should therefore be passed, even if it does harm in general to the nation.

Indeed, if the latest governmental power grab is really such a great idea, then why don’t we amend the  Constitution in the prescribed manner such that all debate in the matter will be put to rest?  I think the reason is quite obvious.


Only the Supreme Court?

The notion goes something like this:

Only the Supreme Court can decide what is constitutional and what is not.

Not only does this belie our previous discussion about “plain meaning”, but it is also an affront to common sense.  Indeed, if only the Supreme Court is qualified to understand the Constitution, then why is anyone else allowed even to read it?  For example, how is it that we know we’re supposed to have a presidential election ever four years?  Is it because the Constitution says so, or because the Supreme Court says that the Constitution says so?  And how do we know that no appropriations bill may originate in the Senate?  Is it because the Constitution says so, or because the  Supreme court says that the Constitution says so?

Doesn’t that Constitution say what it says, regardless of what the Supreme Court opines?  Or is the Supreme Court itself the de facto Constitution?

Similarly, if only the Supreme Court is qualified to understand the Constitution, then how can lesser courts ever rule on the constitutionality of anything?  And how could the House ever impeach, or the Senate ever convict a Supreme Court Justice for “bad behavior” in office, if only the Supreme Court can rightly judge what is bad behavior and what is not?

The ultimate judges of a matter’s constitutionality are supposed to be the people.  If the people think that someone is violating the Constitution, they are supposed to be free to remove that person from office via the ballot box, or by exerting their influence over the officials who can lawfully remove them from office.

One nasty response from a candidate opined that I’m not really after keeping government from exceeding its authority.  Rather, he proffered:

you must mean shouldnt exceed its authority as you interpret it? (sic)

And he continued:

have you become a constitutional scholar of late?

The clear implication, therefore, is that only “constitutional scholars” can rightly interpret the Constitution.  This assertion is demonstrably false, however, as “constitutional scholars” often disagree about interpretation.  The intent of the challenger, therefore, is most likely not to promote a logical argument, but to engage in what is often called a “thought stopper”…a deliberate attempt to influence a person to stop a particular line of thought by intimidation or manipulation.  I suppose that the desired result was that I would panic, “Oh, my God, I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I had better stop trying to understand the Constitution immediately!”

Even Abraham Lincoln, who violated the Constitution repeatedly, pretended to justify himself to the public by way of explaining why his acts were (ostensibly) in accordance with the Constitution.  Why attempt to sway the public when the only opinion that counts is the Supreme Court?


“The Constitution has no authority over me because I never agreed to it.”

This notion is particularly popular amongst anarchists, it seems.  It is, however, a gross departure from reality, which fact can be readily demonstrated by the following questions about nature.

When you were born, were you consulted about:

  • Who your parents would be?
  • Where you would be born?
  • What would be the state of the society at the time you were born?
  • What would be your physical characteristics?
  • Which political structure would exist at the time and place of your birth?
  • Will you have any nice siblings or cousins with which to play?

To suggest that one should be consulted about the constitution under which he or she is born is to suggest that it is patently “unfair” not to be so consulted.  If it is “unfair”, however, by what means shall we prove that unfairness?  Is it against “nature”?  If so, then the questions above demonstrate that “nature” is unconcerned with consulting newborns on a number of matters other than the Constitution.  How, then, can the Constitution be singled out when there is absolutely no hope in any other matter?  Indeed, if it be argued that it is cruel to be born under such a Constitution without one’s consent, whatever shall we make of the plight of those who are born under despotism or civil war without their consent?

How, exactly, would that work?

Every time I hear the “I wasn’t consulted” or “I didn’t sign the Constitution” argument, I put forth the question of just how some alternative system would work.  To date, no one can describe to me how each newborn would even understand the concept of government, much less make an informed decision as to which type he or she would prefer.  Similarly, no one can explain how a society with a multitude of simultaneously-running, newborn-chosen governmental systems could be anything but dysfunctional.  The devil, as they say, is in the details!

Conclusion

The notions discussed here are very damaging as they fly in the face, not only of fact and logic, but also, most fundamentally of thinking itself.  Indeed, their effect is often to shut down examination and discussion, rather than to promote it.  In a government that is “by the people”, the Constitution must be understood by all.  To suggest anything else is to suggest a failing system.

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. June 6, 2010

    Well said, Sir. I would also like to point out that when in doubt one may always refer to the other writings and documents from our Founders; personal letters, the Federalist papers, speeches, etc., to get an idea of where they stood on various issues. The key for “the other camp” is they have to have the courage to believe the truth when they see it.

  2. ATruepatriot permalink
    June 8, 2010

    Very well done,I was just arguing this afternoon with someone that said the words “interpreting the Constitution”and I stated there are no interpretations!
    It is in plain english.Thanks!

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