Many years ago, a young sports reporter interviewed legendary basketball coach John Wooden. The reporter asked Coach Wooden to identify his single greatest accomplishment. Anticipating that Coach Wooden might mention his ten NCAA basketball championships at UCLA, or being the first person inducted into college basketball’s Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach, or receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or any number of notable accolades, the reporter was surprised by Coach Wooden’s immediate retort. As quick as a hiccup, Coach Wooden blurted, “I am most proud of the fact I am first, foremost, and always a teacher.” When the puzzled reporter asked, “Why would you say that, Coach?”, John Wooden immediately fired back: “Young man, you ask me why I teach? Where else could you find such splendid company?”
That is exactly how I feel tonight. I too am most proud of the fact that I am a teacher—a teacher at my beloved alma mater, Western Illinois University. And just look around—where else could I find such splendid company? It doesn’t get any better than this!
President Goldfarb, Provost Thomas, Associate Provost Dallinger, Members of the Board of Trustees, Dean Levi, Dr. and Mrs. Hallwas, Dr. Simmons, Distinguished members of the Hallwas Lecture Committee, fellow faculty, staff, alums and, most importantly, the great students at Western Illinois University—good evening and thanks for attending the 2008 Hallwas Lecture.
It is a distinct honor to have my name associated with the great John Hallwas, a true Renaissance man—a gifted teacher, scholar, raconteur, civic leader, historian, and the most prolific writer our university has ever produced. I am equally privileged to have my name associated with the previous Hallwas Lecturers—John Hallwas (2003), Charles Helm (2004), Karen Mann (2005), Tracy Knight (2006) and Alvin Goldfarb (2007). They have set our academic bar very high.
Thank you for the wonderful introduction and kind words. It makes me feel more important than I really am. In actuality, nobody accomplishes anything significant without a support cast. First and foremost, I want to recognize and thank my dear wife, Linda. Forty years ago, we started our married life together in a two-room apartment in East Village, married student housing, right here on this campus. She alone knows the financial struggles and the great sacrifices we made to get me through college. Without her unwavering support, great typing skills, and encouragement, I would not be here today. Thank you, Linda. Second, I am grateful to Western Illinois University and the myriad opportunities it has provided and continues to provide me. I was blessed to have some truly outstanding professors, educators who challenged and inspired me in countless ways. And I am equally blessed to work with such fine administrators, colleagues, alums and outstanding students.
Who could have imagined that the frightened, awe-struck teenager who first walked through Sherman Hall so many decades ago…that first-generation college student who wondered if he could pay for his education, let alone compete in the classroom…who had never seen a real-life Ph.D. and who truly thought that professors wore mortarboards to class…would be standing here today, delivering the Hallwas Lecture on the 50th anniversary of our college. Miracles do happen. Thank you, Western!
A great deal of thought went into selecting the topic of tonight’s lecture—“The Constitution—Its Fate Depends On Civic Leaders.” There are many interrelated factors that drew me to this particular title and topic. First, the subject of constitutional law has long intrigued me. The seeds of this fascination were sewn several decades ago by several fine political science professors at Western—Don Marshall, Charles Leonard, and David Frier; and over the years I have continued to study the Constitution and develop a variety of public law courses. Second, the topic comports nicely with our Constitution Day celebration. As you may know, in 2005 U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia secured passage of a law that requires all educational institutions receiving federal funding to honor our Constitution annually on or near its birthday, September 17. This lecture, plus copies of the U.S. Constitution and ancillary materials, are offered in the spirit of that law. Third, I sought a topic that would highlight the importance of a liberal arts education—the heart of any great university. As will be noted shortly, the Framers of the Constitution were well grounded in the liberal arts, and the masterpiece that they created reflects the wisdom of the classics. Finally, the Constitution is solid rock upon which our Republic is built. We Americans are a diverse group of people; we come in many packages. Among our body politic are people of virtually every nationality, ethnicity, religion and culture. While we often have profound disagreements over politics, religion, art, music and lifestyles, we nevertheless have at least one thing in common—The Constitution of the United States. It is, I believe, the proverbial glue that holds us together as a nation.
Tonight, let us briefly turn attention to the Founders, the Constitutional Convention, and, of course, the Constitution. Let us highlight some of the Constitution’s most striking features, demonstrate its flexibility, examine how it has changed, and speculate about its future. And, like everything else in America, you are to form your own opinions on the topic.
Overview of the Constitution
Our Constitution is now 219 years old. It is the oldest, written, nation-state constitution in operation today. The document is remarkably parsimonious. It contains a “Preamble,” a short introduction, exclaiming its lofty purpose (“We, the People of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”). Ironically, the Preamble has never been used as the basis for any Supreme Court ruling. The document next contains seven “Articles,” or content subdivisions, and just 27 Amendments or formal alterations (the first ten of which came with the Bill of Rights and just 17 since 1791). Excluding the Founders’ signatures, the entire document, including amendments, contains 7,606 words. Had you read today’s Chicago Tribune’s sports section, you would have read more words than are contained in the U.S. Constitution. Yet, despite its longevity and brevity, our Constitution remains a durable, functioning framework upon which our government is built.
In 1787, Framers gathered in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall ostensibly for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” The Articles of Confederation, created in 1781, represented the states’ weak attempt to establish a national government. The Articles’ problems were manifold. The 13 states retained their own sovereignty. Each state could coin its own money, negotiate treaties, impose restrictions on trade, and favor its own citizens. The national government had no executive branch, the judicial branch’s jurisdiction was limited to prize and piracy cases, and the legislative branch was powerless to collect taxes—thus we had no effective army or navy to protect the people and our economic interests. Given the glaring weaknesses of the Articles, it is easy to see that the Delegates quickly dismissed the Articles and moved to craft a new national government.
Each of the states, save Rhode Island, sent delegates to the convention. Although some 73 delegates were named, only 55 ever attended the convention, and just 39 signed the completed document. Delegates ranged in age from 26 (Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey) to 81 (the venerable Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania), with an average of 43 years. Most of the 55 delegates had considerable political experience. Eight were signers of the Declaration of Independence, 44 served in the Continental Congress, six had served as state governors, and most had served in their respective state legislatures.
Naturally, much attention has been given to the delegates’ race, religion and economic status. All were white males. There were 54 Protestants and one Roman Catholic. Thirty-two of the 55 delegates were attorneys, eight were merchants, three were medical doctors, two were college presidents, about two dozen owned slaves, and most were relatively quite wealthy. Indeed, arguably the richest delegate was the presiding officer, George Washington. Viewing the Founders through today’s lenses, it is quite understandable why many Americans fixate on the demographic characteristics of the Founders and why some critics label them exclusionary elitists. Whether or not our Founders were truly representatives of the people or had the willingness to put the public interest above private interests has long been the subject of debate, witness the provocative writings of Charles A. Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, 1913), Robert E. Brown (Charles A. Beard and the Constitution, 1956), or Forrest McDonald (We the People, 1976).
Influence of Liberal Arts
However, one aspect of our Framers that is often overlooked is their solid grounding in the liberal arts. When we speak of liberal arts, we are referring to a body of knowledge that pertains to general cultural concerns, such as history, philosophy and language, as opposed to technical training or learning a trade. As a whole, the delegates were highly educated. Nearly all began their education in the home, learning to read Biblical passages. Most received formal schooling or private tutoring in Latin or Greek, and many attended college. Indeed, nearly 30 of the 55 delegates were college graduates. There were some notable exceptions, such as George Washington who only had about five years of formal schooling, but he too valued books and was familiar with some of the classics.
The classical education of the period emphasized seven liberal arts—known as the “trivium” and the “quadrivium.” The “trivium” (Latin, meaning the place where three roads meet), or the lower division of the liberal arts, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. The “quadrivium” (Latin, meaning where four roads join), was the higher division of the liberal arts, which included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.
There is clear evidence that most of our early leaders were avid readers. Recall Jefferson’s later quip, “I cannot live without books (1815).” Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams and other contemporaries frequently quoted the classics in their political debates and personal correspondence. This too was the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, when intellectuals throughout Western culture strove to understand human nature and advance seemingly radical social and political reforms. The Founders were quite familiar with English philosopher Francis Bacon and his belief in “scientific discovery.” According to Bacon, it was possible to observe nature, discover immutable laws, engage human reason, and apply it to society.
While the Founders appeared intellectually eclectic, there were several common threads that profoundly influenced their thinking and actions. They were: 1) Classical Republicanism, 2) Natural Rights Philosophy, and 3) Judeo-Christian Tenants.
The Founders were quite familiar with ancient Greek and Roman culture and history. Among the early Greek philosophers, historians and orators they admired included Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Plutarch, Demosthenes, Homer and Polybius. The Founders were particularly intrigued with the Roman Republic (circa 509 to 27 B.C.) and the chronicles of Cicero, Virgil, Horace and Justinian. Most importantly, the Founders were taken by the Greek and Roman philosophy that would later be termed “classical republicanism.” Under classical republicanism, the political culture places public interest above private interest, and promotes the common good through moral education and the civic virtue of its citizens. Civic virtue encompassed the essential qualities of fairness, honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity, courage, responsibility, accountability, moderation and self-control.
Examples of this classical republican influence upon our early American leaders are legion. The authors of the Anti-Federalists Papers (those who opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution) published under the pseudonyms of Roman heroes, such as “Cato” (George Clinton-NY), “Brutus” (Robert Yates-NY) and “Centinel” (Samuel Bryan-PA). Likewise, The Federalist Papers (85 essays authored by Alexander Hamilton-NY, James Madison-VA and John Jay-NY supporting the ratification of the Constitution) were anonymously penned under the name “Publius” (the sage Roman consul, known as “the Friend of the People,” who instituted the popular vote and exempted the poor from taxes). Perhaps the most revered Roman consul was Cincinnatus, the leader who placed public service ahead of personal gain and voluntarily relinquished power to return to his farm. George Washington, upon stepping down as President, was often referred to as “America’s Cincinnatus.”
Natural Rights Philosophy
It is plainly evident the Founders were keenly influenced by the Natural Rights philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau. The recurring theme among these philosophers was the belief that humans once lived in a “state of nature” where they had complete freedom. But life in this state of nature was uncertain and chaotic at best. As Hobbes pessimistically theorized, life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” According to these theorists, there was nothing in the state of nature to protect their lives or their natural rights to life, property or liberty. To live, let alone progress, the people entered into a compact with the sovereign, but could never relinquish certain natural rights. For Hobbes, the fundamental right was the right to “life”. For Locke, natural rights included the rights to worship, voice their concerns to government, and own property. And for Rousseau, when humans entered into the social compact with the sovereign, they agreed to give up complete unbridled freedoms in exchange for civil liberties—liberties within the law.
This natural rights philosophy was the cornerstone for The Declaration of Independence in 1776. If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, he would likely be charged with plagiarism, because it was painfully obvious that he had borrowed from the natural rights theorists, especially John Locke. When Jefferson states, “Governments were instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” Locke’s influence was apparent. Similarly, when Jefferson writes about “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” (Note how Jefferson substituted Locke’s notion of “property” for “Pursuit of Happiness,” suggesting to critics that Jefferson did not want common people to get the idea they may be entitled to the Founders’ property). We will see how the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution would substitute this latter phrase, mandating “No person shall be denied the right to life, liberty and property without due process.” The 9th Amendment to the Constitution also reveals this natural rights influence, “The enumeration in this Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Finally, the Founders were influenced by Judeo-Christian teachings. As noted, many of the Founders had learned to read from Biblical scripture. Moreover, many colonial colleges required students to translate passages of the Bible into Greek and Latin as a condition of admission. Recall the reference to the Deity in the Declaration of Independence: “…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” The Framers often quoted the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that emphasized love, charity and forgiveness. Benjamin Franklin spoke of Providence when he noted, “God governs the affairs of men.” The inscription on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land,” stems from the book of Leviticus. Hence, there is clear indication of the Framers belief in a higher power.
In sum, the Framers of the Constitutional Convention were well grounded in the liberal arts. They were generally well read. They respected history, and drew heavily upon philosophy and religion. This is readily apparent when one examines the content of the Constitution.
Basic Features of the Constitution
The enormity of the task facing the Framers in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 is perhaps best encapsulated by James Madison in the Federalist #51 (February 6, 1788), “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the chief difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” This is the question that has long perplexed the architects of government and the lovers of liberty alike. How do we create a government strong enough to govern the people, but not so strong that it abridges our basic freedoms? How was this to be accomplished?
The Framers were practical men who borrowed extensively from a variety of sources. It is impossible in this forum to detail the roots of every provision in the Constitution. Suffice it to say, the document is highly eclectic. One can find significant trace elements of the Magna Carta (1215), The British Petition of Rights (1628), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786), early state constitutions, and the aforementioned philosophers.
A few years back (2001), Justice Antonin Scalia was a guest in one of my constitutional law classes at the University of Missouri. He began by asking the students to identify what they considered to be the most important provision in the Constitution. Most students identified the First Amendment and the freedom of expression; some identified the 6th Amendment’s right to council, others the 4th Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures, a few cited the 2nd Amendment, and still others concentrated on the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. Justice Scalia acknowledged the importance of each, but noted that many world constitutions, even those of totalitarian regimes, contain such provisions on paper.
It was Justice Scalia’s considered opinion that the most important provisions of our Constitution are those providing for separation of powers and checks and balances. These concepts, of course, were the brainchild of French philosopher Montesquieu. In his classic work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu suggested a mixed constitution with built in safeguards that would impede any one group from gaining total control of the polity. As Madison writes in Federalist #51, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The embracement of this philosophy in our Constitution is clearly evident. Article I provides, “All Legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress.” Article II begins, “The Executive Powers shall be vested in a President of the United States…” And, Article III stipulates, “The Judicial Power shall be vested in one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress shall from time to time ordain and establish.” Under this plan, each branch is responsible to a different constituency, serves a different term, and possesses different legal weapons with which to challenge the other. It is Scalia’s contention that without these vital elements all other freedoms would be meaningless.
Changes — Then and Now
Just consider a few of the changes that have taken place since our Constitution took effect in 1789. Our nation’s capitol was New York City. The largest city was Philadelphia with about 40,000 people (the population of Quincy, Illinois, today) and the entire U.S. population was roughly 3.9 million (about one-third the current population of Illinois). There were just 13 states, and each had nearly complete freedom to control anything within its borders. People of color were not citizens; indeed, most were considered property. Children had few rights, women could not vote, and even white males had to be 21 and own property to vote. There were no political parties. There was no Capitol Building, no White House, and no Supreme Court Building (indeed it would not be until 1935 that the High Court had its first, permanent home). Senators were selected by their respective state legislatures. Serving in Congress in the early days of our Republic was a great personal sacrifice, and most members served no more than one or two terms. President Washington’s initial administration consisted of just one, part-time person—his nephew, Bushrod, whom he paid him out of his own pocket. Of necessity, President Washington’s foreign policy was that of isolation as he sought to avoid entangling alliances. The first federal budget was about $1 million. The Supreme Court was created with the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789. The first Supreme Court consisted of six members, who rode circuit twice a year, and didn’t render a case for the first three years. It took weeks to travel to and from the nation’s capitol. Believe it or not, there were no Wal-Marts, no airplanes, no computers, no cell phones, no emails, no blackberries…. You get the idea.
Today, there are 50 states, and the U.S. population is an estimated 310 million. Washington, DC, has served as our nation’s capital since 1800. The U.S. federal government budget is now $3.1 trillion, and our nation in going in debt about $1.9 billion per day! The national government through the commerce clause, emergency powers, and grants-in-aid now regulates many areas that were once considered the exclusive preserve of the states. One would be hard pressed to find a single policy area (education, highways, health care, welfare, public safety, etc.) that the federal government does not regulate. Indeed, it could be argued that Illinois is no longer the state of Illinois, but a department of the federal government! The White House has long been the symbol of the presidency. The President’s staff has now grown to about 450, excluding the residence employees, such as chefs, custodians, gardeners, and painters. And the U.S. government has a presence in every part of the globe. Political parties have long dominated the nomination and election process. Senators have been popularly elected for nearly a century. And now if you win a seat in Congress, due to incumbency advantage and partisan gerrymandering, it’s yours to keep! There was more turnover in the Supreme Soviet than in the U.S. Congress. Minorities and women are now winning significant electoral victories at all levels of government and are now a vital part of the political landscape. And now in 2008, American stands poised to elect an African American or a woman to the highest offices of our nation!
Methods of Constitutional Change
Our Constitution has changed in myriad ways, both formally and informally.
Through Formal Amendments
The Framers recognized that the Constitution would require periodic alterations, so they included an amending article, Article V. This article is based on the federal principle; it requires the consent of both the national and state governments to amend the Constitution. There are two ways to propose and two ways to ratify amendments. They can be proposed by two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress, or by a Constitutional Convention called for by 2/3’s of the state legislatures (today, 34 states). I will have more to offer regarding the convention method in just a moment.
The ink had barely dried on the Constitution in 1787, when anonymous articles began to appear in newspapers questioning the efficacy and limits of the new government. Among the greatest concerns of these Anti-federalists was the Supremacy clause (Art. 6, Sec. 2), the role of the Supreme Court, and most especially the lack of a Bill of Rights. The Founders generally thought there were sufficient protections built into the Constitution, especially in Article I, Sections 9 and 10 (e.g., proscriptions on ex post facto laws, bills of attainder). But this did not satisfy the Anti-federalists. Indeed, George Mason of Virginia quipped, “I would rather cut off my right arm than to sign this document as it presently exists.” Fearing that the Constitution would not be ratified, the Federalists agreed to add a Bill of Rights.
When the very first Congress met in New York in March of 1789, the Federalists immediately announced plans to accept amendments. Just think, this may be the first time, and the only time, in recorded history where Congress ever kept a promise. Approximately, 125 amendments were submitted, many overlapped and were poorly worded (there were many “ought nots” in the verbiage). Mason and Madison took the lead in sifting and winnowing through the proposals. Ultimately, Congress approved twelve amendments, and sent them to the states for ratification. The states ratified ten, which became known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
Interestingly, the original first two amendments did not pass. The original first amendment did not pass. It would have established one member of Congress for every 30,000 persons. Had that passed, we would have just over 10,000 members of Congress! That would be like herding cats! And the original second amendment is now the 27th Amendment, ratified in 1992, 203 years after it was originally proposed.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments, was ratified in 1791. But there are still at least two common misperceptions about these amendments. First, the Bill of Rights places restrictions on government, not individuals. For example, it is not a violation of the First Amendment for a private employer to sanction an employee for an untoward remark made on the job. Indeed, among all 27 constitutional amendments, there is only one that restricts individual action—the 13th Amendment. Second, only a portion of the Bill of Rights today extends protections against state actions, as opposed to federal governmental actions. Beginning with Gitlow v. New York (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court has gradually expanded the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s “due process” clause to selectively absorb or incorporate portions of the Bill of Rights so that they extend protection against both levels of government—but only on a piecemeal, case-by-case basis. Today, only three amendments of the Bill of Rights, 1st, 4th and 6th, protect us against state actions. Two amendments have been partially incorporated—5th and 8th. The remaining five amendments—2nd, 3rd, 7th, 9th and 10th—only apply to the federal government.
Three Amendments have been added to overcome controversial U.S. Supreme Court rulings. They are: 11th Amendment (1795) to overcome Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), 14th Amendment (1868) to reverse Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), 16th Amendment (1913) to circumvent Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan & Trust Company (1895).
Three Amendments were added to reflect changing social values. They were the 13th (1865), striking slavery and involuntary servitude; the 18th (1919), calling for prohibition; and the 21st (1933), which repealed the 18th Amendment.
Four Amendments have altered the method of selecting the President: the 12th (1804), requiring electors to cast separate ballots for President and Vice President; 20th (1933) or “lame duck” amendment, telescoping the period between the election and convening of government; 22nd (1951), term limits for the President; and 25th (1967) establishing procedures for dealing with presidential disability and vacancies.
And there have been six amendments that have expanded the franchise. It is painfully obvious that our suffrage was quite limited in the early days of our Republic. The Constitution leaves the question of voter qualifications up to the states, and the states generally limited voting to white, male property owners over 21 years of age. But through the amendment process, we have added the 15th (1870), extending suffrage to men of color; 17th (1913), calling for the popular election of U.S. Senators; 19th (1920); granting the franchise to women; 23rd (1961), allowing the residents of Washington, DC, three electoral votes; 24th (1964), banning poll taxes in federal elections; and 26th (1971), allowing those over 18 years old the right to vote.
But how do you think those changes occurred? Do you think that a group of men sat there in Congress and said, “We think it’s a good idea if we were elected by the people rather than being hand picked by our good old boy network back home in the state legislatures”? Maybe they said: “Here’s a good idea, lets give people of color the right to vote.” Perchance they said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we gave women the right vote?” Or perhaps they said, “We really need to give teenagers the right to vote.” If you believe that, you would believe that a pencil only has one end. It took a very well organized progressive movement, with great civic leaders, to change the way we elect U.S. Senators. It took a Civil War to secure the 15th Amendment, plus an additional hundred years of struggle and uncommon civic leadership to secure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to enable people of color the right to vote. And it took social protest and a peace movement on college campuses to secure 18 year-olds the right to vote.
Nobody said it was easy. But it is possible if you have the right civic leaders—leaders, who possess great passion, are driven by principles, who understand the art of politics, and are willing to make great sacrifices to achieve great things.
Of course, there are lots of people with seemingly great ideas who have attempted to create constitutional amendments. There have been over 11,000 constitutional amendments proposed over the years, and over half have been since 1970. You can find a few of those proposals listed in the handout. Some might seem a bit odd, such as amendments to outlaw dueling, renaming our country to “The United States of the World,” or selecting Presidents by lot from a list of retiring U.S. Senators—now that might be a way to enforce term limits! Other proposals may strike a harmonious chord, such as the amendments to limit congressional terms, restrict campaign contributions or eliminate my “alma mater,” the Electoral College. Did you know that there have been over 500 proposed amendments to change or eliminate the Electoral College? Recent polls suggest that over 70 percent of Americans favor the popular election of the President.
Through Constitutional Convention
As just noted, Article V also allows us to amend the Constitution through a constitutional convention when petitioned to do so by two-thirds of the state legislatures (now 34). Thus far, all of our amendments have been proposed initially by state legislatures; but there have been more than 300 attempts to call for another convention, but on only two occasions have we come close to securing the necessary two-thirds requirement. Led by U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL) we came within two states of calling a constitutional convention in the late 1960s in reaction to Reynolds v. Sims (1964), a Supreme Court decision that ordered the upper houses of state legislatures to redraw their districts to comport with the “one person, one vote” principle. And the most recent was in the 1990s when we fell just two states short of petitioning Congress to convene a constitutional convention for the purpose of establishing an amendment to require a balanced federal budget.
Among the most thoughtful suggestions to amend the U.S. Constitution have been offered by Dr. Larry Sabato, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Virginia. I have summarized his 23 suggestions for amending the Constitution in the handout. Among other things, he seeks to impose term limits on members of Congress; enlarge the size of House, Senate and Supreme Court; ban wealthy people from financing their own campaigns; and require a balanced federal budget. But to accomplish any of these, he is proposing another constitutional convention.
Let us consider this prospect for a moment. The Framers did not provide us with a great deal of detail with respect to the notion of a constitution convention. Here are some paramount questions. How will delegates be selected—by state legislatures, by Congress, by the voters? How many delegates will each state be entitled to have—equal numbers or members equal to the number of Senators and Representatives each state has in Congress? Who will preside over this new constitutional convention—a present leader of Congress, a state governor, a former President, the Chief Justice? Who will be the next George Washington? Should we require bipartisan representation? How are votes to be cast—apportioned by the states or shall each state get just one vote, as it was in the 1787 convention? Would it be possible to maintain secrecy like the original convention or would the media demand embedded reporters? What would prevent a “runaway” convention; recall the purpose of our very first Convention was the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” And, would it be possible to craft a workable document that would satisfy the diverse interests in our American society?
And even if a new constitutional convention could reach agreement, the proposed amendments or new constitution would have to be ratified by three-fourths or 38 states today. Which current provisions of the Constitution would emerge undisturbed—the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, the 2nd Amendment, the Takings Clause, the Supremacy Clause? Perhaps F. Lee Bailey was correct when he quipped that the Bill of Rights would not even get out of a Congressional Committee today.
Through Custom and Usage
Our Constitution also has been altered through custom and usage. Here are just a few examples. Congress has developed “senatorial courtesy,” the unwritten rule that requires the President to seek prior approval from the U.S. Senator(s) of his party before making an appointment from that state. Most Congress members now engage in the practice of “earmarking” funds for pet projects, often without full hearings or complete public scrutiny. Congress has the authority to subpoena witnesses to testify before hearings, a power that historically belonged only to the judicial branch. Beginning with George Washington, Presidents have withheld sensitive information from Congress in the name of separation of powers. The Supreme Court recognizes this practice, known as “executive privilege,” as constitutional for national security but not criminal activities (U.S. v. Nixon, 1974). The Supreme Court also recognizes the President’s authority to remove the people whom he appoints, albeit that power is not specified in the Constitution (see, Myers v. U.S., 1926). Likewise, the High Court has legitimated the President’s power to negotiate “executive agreements” with foreign states without senatorial approval—and these agreements have the same constitutional status as a treaty (see, U.S. v. Belmont, 1937; U.S. v. Pink, 1942). The power to declare war is conferred upon Congress in Article I, but for all practical purposes this power seems to have been transferred to the President. Indeed, Barry Goldwater once quipped, “The United States has been in only five declared wars out of the more than 150 in which we have fought.” And, perhaps most importantly, the United State Supreme Court has claimed the power of “judicial review”—the authority to declare acts of Congress, the President or the actions of state or local governments unconstitutional. Let us turn our attention to the role of the Supreme Court in interpreting the Constitution.
Through Supreme Court Rulings
Judicial review is, for all intents and purposes, an American invention. While the seeds of judicial review could be found in British legal history (e.g., Lord Coke in Bonham’s Case, 1610), the American colonial experience (e.g., James Otis in Lechmere’s Case, 1761) or early appellate court decisions (e.g., William Patterson in Van Horne’s Lessee v. Dorrance, 1795), the logical place to begin is the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) when Chief Justice John Marshall declared the Constitution to be a fundamental document, superior to any congressional enactment, and any law enacted which runs contrary to the Constitution should be null and void. Up to that point, no government of the world had ever permitted such action. The role of the courts was always thought to be to interpret the law, not to reject it. The act of interpretation is thought to be a judicial act. It is up to the legislature to revise the law to comport with the fundamental law; it was not the role of the judicial branch to order legislative actions or nullify the law. Thus, the act of declaring something unconstitutional is thought to be a political act.
The U.S. Supreme Court is among the most powerful political bodies in the world. Its rulings not only interpret the Constitution, but they shape its meaning and direction. It is understandable why many observers believe the Supreme Court is nothing more than a perpetual constitutional convention.
The Supreme Court’s power is best understood by the “Allegory of the Skull.” There was a primitive tribe that resided on an isolated island in the Southern Pacific. The people of this primitive tribe had never been exposed to the ways of the modern world. They wore loincloths, lived in grass huts, ate coconuts, speared fish, and had never seen a gun, an airplane or a telephone. When the people had a problem, the tribal elders would hike up to the sacred cave in the side of the mountain, where they would consult the skull of their founder. After several hours of incantations and gyrations around the skull, the elders would emerge from the cave and rejoin the tribe to announce the decision of the skull.
Is this really any different than the U.S. Supreme Court? Nearly every Friday or Thursday, when Court is in session, our nine appointed Supreme Court Justice meet in conference to decide cases. The meeting is held in complete secrecy as they gather around a large wooden table. And on the center of that table is a copy of the Constitution. Here the justices are called upon to decide cases our Framers could never have envisioned—cases relating to wiretapping, automobile searches, affirmative action, campaign finance reform. Should enemy aliens be afforded the same rights as American citizens? Can Washington, DC, outlaw guns within its jurisdiction? Can a private club restrict membership to men, or women? Can campus clubs on public universities use activity fees to promote religion? Does lethal injection constitute “cruel or unusual punishment”? Does a pregnant woman driving alone constitute a car pool? And whenever the decision is reached, members of the Washington press corps, many of whom are attorneys, will scramble to promulgate the Court’s ruling. Headlines might read, “The Constitution Prohibits this or that… Says the High Court,” or “The Supreme Court Determines Police Procedures Violate the Constitution.” Sound familiar? But the reality is, none of those things are written in the Constitution or on the skull in the cave. Perhaps it all comes down to what Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said, “The Constitution is what a majority of the justices say it is.”
The ongoing polemics over the proper role of the Supreme Court can be traced to the Anti-Federalists and Federalists debate over the ratification of the Constitution. In the Anti-Federalists #78 and #79 (March 1788), “Brutus” (generally thought to be Robert Yates, NY) argued against placing such immense power in the hands of judges with lifetime appointments. He feared the Court would run roughshod over the states, particularly under the aegis of the supremacy clause (Article I, Section 2). In Federalist #78 (June 1788), “Publius” (Alexander Hamilton, NY) responded by noting the judicial branch is intended to be the weakest branch of the national government. But he quickly asserted that a Supreme Court was necessary to check the unauthorized actions of the legislative and executive branches and preserve the people’s rights vested in the Constitution.
Today, there are many who believe the Constitution is a “living document” which affords Supreme Court justices great leeway in interpreting the law to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. These “judicial activists” see the Court as the vanguard to protect civil liberties and minority rights. Others believe Supreme Court justices should merely interpret the words of the Constitution and refrain from creating new rights and liberties, such as privacy rights or group rights. From the “judicial restraint” perspective, any significant alteration of the Constitution should redound from a majority of the people through their elected representatives. Whatever side you take on this debate, this much is clear—our Constitution is a great document that affects nearly every aspect of our lives today.
Will Our Constitution Last?
With that backdrop, now let us turn to the central question of this lecture: Will our Constitution last? The answer, of course, depends on many factors. There are many reasons to believe our Constitution will stand the test of time, and equally compelling reasons why it may not meet the challenges ahead. Let us briefly examine some reasons to be optimistic and some reasons to be guarded.
Reasons for Optimism
There are many reasons to be optimistic about our Constitution’s future. First and foremost, consider its longevity. Think of how many nation-state constitutions have come and gone since 1789. The second oldest written constitution still in operation is that of Norway, which dates to 1814, some 25 years our junior. There are approximately 190 member states in the United Nations today, and roughly 120 of those have constitutions written since 1970. France has undergone ten constitutions—5 republics, 2 dictatorships, 2 empires, and one monarchy. And El Salvador has experimented with approximately 36 constitutions over its existence.
Second, our Constitution has survived great economic crises. It managed to survive the economic calamity in the inchoate stages of our Republic when we had no national banking system. The Constitution has endured recessions, panics and even the Great Depression of the 1930s—when nearly a quarter of our population was unemployed, hundreds of banks closed their doors, and thousands of businesses filed bankruptcy.
Third, the Constitution has endured great electoral challenges. It survived the presidential election of 1800, when it took the House of Representatives 36 ballots to make Thomas Jefferson the President over Aaron Burr. The Constitution has weathered four presidential elections where the candidate who won the most popular votes lost the election. They were the elections of 1824 (John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson), 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel J. Tilden), 1888 (Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland), and, how can anybody forget 2000 (George W. Bush over Al Gore)! The outcome of the 2000 election, of course, was ultimately determined by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (2000). I find it a bit ironic that those who subscribe to judicial activism bitterly disagreed with the decision, while those who believe in judicial restraint generally applauded the decision.
The Constitution has likewise survived presidential crises. Consider the great scandals—the Crédit Mobilier (Grant), Teapot Dome (Harding) and Watergate (Nixon). Our system has survived two presidential impeachments—Andrew Johnson (1868) and William Jefferson Clinton (1998), and four assassinations—Abraham Lincoln (1865), James A. Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1898), and John F. Kennedy (1963). And from 1974 to 1977 our nation had both a President (Gerald R. Ford) and a Vice President (Nelson Rockefeller), neither of whom was elected by the people!
Our Constitution has withstood great social upheavals, such as the Whiskey Rebellion (1791) and the Dorr Rebellion (1841). It has withstood assassinations of charismatic American leaders—Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and Robert Kennedy (1968). And, it survived the greatest of all challenges, the Civil War—the deadliest conflagration that pitted brother against brother, sister against sister, and redounded in some 618,000 deaths.
Reasons for Pessimism
But there are some reasons to question whether this great document can survive. Is there anything that lasts forever? Perhaps love, truth, or Scripture last forever? Certainly, human flesh does not. If we are fortunate to live a long life, each of us will experience physical and mental decline. Is there anything humans build that will not deteriorate with time? Every building, bridge, monument or structure will ultimate decay and crumble without constant upkeep and repair. Consider the ancient Hebrew passage: “And this too shall pass.” In 484 B.C., Greek historian Herodotus, observed: “There is nothing permanent except change.” And, please note, when Benjamin Franklin quipped, “nothing in this world is certain, but death and taxes,” he was actually referring to the U.S. Constitution.
Let us draw upon some students of history—Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Paul Kennedy.
British philosopher and historian Edward Gibbon authored the six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), one of the most substantial and controversial historical treatises of modern times. It was Gibbon’s thesis that the collapse of this great empire was largely the result of over-expansionism and internal corruption. “But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.”
In his two-volume classic, The Decline of the West (1918-1922), German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler pessimistically posits that all civilizations inevitably pass through life cycles—from youth through maturity and old age to death, and that Western culture had entered the period of decline. This autumn phase, according to Spengler, is characterized by the growth of sprawling cities, the politics of greed, the cultural disconnect with the past, and the loss of common values and goals.
English historian Arnold Toynbee’s 12-volume, A Study of History (1934-1961) chronicled the rise and fall of 26 great civilizations. According to Toynbee, “Civilizations, I believe, come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They break down and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them which they fail to meet.” It is Toynbee’s central thesis that a civilization’s survival depends on the resourcefulness of its leaders to respond successfully to successive cultural, religious and economic challenges. Hence, according to Toynbee, whether or not a civilization declines depends on the quality of its leaders.
More recently, Yale professor Paul Kennedy studies the efficacy and limits of nation-states in The Decline and Fall of Great Powers (1987). In this thought-provoking work, Kennedy traces the history of world powers, including the Hapsburg, French, Spanish, British, Prussian, and Austrian-Hungarian empires, from 1500 through 1980. It is Kennedy’s overarching theme that superpowers decline due to military and economic overstretch. According to Kennedy, great nations increasingly become involved in global, military affairs as a way of protecting their interests. But the great cost associated with maintaining military presence places increasing strain on the state’s economy. As the superpower borrows and runs up significant trade deficits, its influence is weakened and eventually declines.
I recognize, of course, that these historical theses are not ironclad. Each work has generated scores of criticism from thoughtful scholars who view the same phenomenon through different lenses. I am equally cognizant of the fact that civilizations and constitutions are not one and the same; civilizations and nation-states may jettison constitutions without necessarily declining. Rather, I offer the aforementioned examples to demonstrate that change happens, that seemingly nothing lasts forever, and this includes great world powers. So, can we draw any parallels between these former great powers and the present-day United States? Consider some external and internal problems facing the United States today, and how each could threaten our constitutional republic.
Weapons of Mass Destruction
We now live in the age of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry. At least nine nation-states have tested nuclear weapons, including Russia, France, India, Pakistan, China and North Korea. Many states have the capability of developing weapons of mass destruction, including Iran. The proverbial toothpaste is out of the tube. Just try to get it back in. Compounding this is the distinct possibility that terrorists could detonate a bomb in the United States. On one of the earliest broadcasts of NBC’s Meet the Press, host Lawrence Spivak asked guest Bernard Baruch if there was any way to prevent a terrorist from blowing up New York City with an atomic bomb. Baruch responded, that the only way to prevent that would be with a crowbar. That is, the authorities would have to open each and every package. That would be both impractical and would likely violate innocent people’s civil liberties.
The challenge for our leaders is how to check the spread of terrorism without diminishing our civil liberties. An overreaction to perceived threats could, indeed, significantly weaken our Constitution. Yet, without the necessary security, our freedoms would mean nothing. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln said it best when he addressed Congress on July 4, 1861: “Must a government of necessity be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, a champion of civil liberties, put it even more succinctly: “This Constitution is not a suicide pact” (Terminello v. Chicago, 1949).
Our growing national debt should be a major concern. The Gross National Debt is what our U.S. national government owes to creditors, those who hold U.S. debt instruments—Treasury Bills, U.S. Savings Bonds, State and Local Government Securities, Notes, etc. If we can believe the National Debt Clock, the United States is now $9.7 trillion in arrears, and going in debt at the rate of $1.93 billion a day. By contrast, the U.S. national debt in 1791 was $75 million; by the time I finish speaking tonight, our national debt will have greatly exceeded that figure. The ratio of debt to Gross Domestic Product is approaching 37 percent, the highest in nearly 50 years. Roughly 40 percent of that debt must go into the Federal Reserve System. The remaining 60 percent is owed to private persons (pensions), corporation, state and local governments, and foreign investors and governments. Among the largest foreign investors are Japan ($590 billion), China ($502 billion), and the United Kingdom ($250 billion). Just the interest payments on our national debt constitute the second largest expenditure (19 percent) of the General Fund (the largest is defense spending at 30 percent). The yearly interest payment on the national debt will soon reach $400 billion—that will exceed what the federal government spends annually on environmental protection, education, transportation and homeland security combined (Detroit Free Press, July 31, 2008).
Compounding this national debt is the growing use of congressional earmarking, a new moniker for old-fashion pork barrel legislation. Earmarks are pet projects that are not necessarily of overriding national importance; they enable members of Congress to bring home federal monies to their districts, and often reward campaign contributors with contracts or projects that help line their pockets. According to the Constitution, bills must be approved by Congress and be signed by the President. But earmarks do not follow the typical legislative route; committees, sans the scrutiny of the entire legislative chamber, can approve them. The number of earmarks has increased at an alarming rate and has doubtlessly contributed to the federal deficit. In 1996, there were less than 300 earmarks, but today there are an estimated 11,700 earmarks. This adds up to billions in wasteful spending.
Social Security Concerns
Social Security may be a ticking time bomb. Although the U.S. is now running a Social Security surplus, it really does not go into the “lock box,” but is used to fund the government. When Social Security came into effect in the mid-to-late 1930s, it was thought to be a hedge for those who retired. The dependency ratio was 17:1, meaning there were 17 people paying into the system for everyone who took out. The money went into a fund, which built up interest, and that interest was used to fund the recipients. At that time, the life expectancy of the average American was about 61 years; thus, most people died four years before their Social Security kicked in at age 65. Today, due to enlarged coverage and expanded life expectancy, now about 78 years, the dependency ratio has changed dramatically. Today, the dependency ratio is about 3:1, and when the post-World War II baby-boomers hit retirement, that ration could reach 2:1. Obviously, something must be done, but our current leaders fear adverse political consequences if they attempt to overhaul the system.
Things don’t bode well for the U.S. housing market. We are seeing record defaults on home mortgages (1.2 million in just the second quarter of 2008), due largely to the sub-prime lending and ballooning adjustable rate mortgages extended to high-risk borrowers. Many high-risk lenders are on the verge of meltdown, and efforts are underway to have the federal government bailout Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This will ultimately cost taxpayers trillions of dollars. And this could have ripple effects—increased interest rates, vacant properties, loss of urban revenues, perhaps an increase in criminal activity.
Our nation’s growing energy crisis further compounds our economic woes. We are all now painfully aware of the energy crisis at hand. The United States has just 4.4 percent of the world’s population but consumes about 25 percent of the world’s oil. The U.S. produces only 33 percent of its daily crude oil needs; 67 percent is imported, mainly from Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela. The days of $5 per barrel of crude oil are long gone. In 2006, The Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force warned that our nation’s addiction to oil and our dependency on foreign oil are undercutting our economy and national security. The report further warns that energy suppliers, such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, can undermine our foreign policy interests, especially with China and India, two nations that are accelerating their demand for oil. It is now obvious the United States must increase domestic production of oil and transition into the use of alternate sources of energy. We nearly all agree on that, but the question is how we are going to do it.
In his book, Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy (1999,), Brian O’Connell notes, “the history of other democracies teaches us that the greatest threat often comes from within…” and that “many of the threats to our civil society relate to misunderstanding of what it is and its relevance to the functions and preservation of democracy” (p. 79). I believe O’Connell’s observation is particularly relevant to American democracy.
Aside from the Native Americans, ours is a nation of immigrants. Like a wonderful tossed salad, our polity is composed of people from every part of the globe. People seek to join us for many reasons—to gain political asylum, to reconnect with family, to seek riches, to secure a quality education, and, most importantly, to seek freedom. Immigration has often come in large waves of people from particular parts of the world. Transitions are not easy, and each significant influx brings temporary social and cultural conflicts.
We are now witnessing a very significant change. The population of the United States has tripled in the past century. Approximately one-third of the estimated 300 million Americans are now classified as minorities, and roughly 45 percent of all American children under the age of 5 are minorities. Our nation is becoming more and more diverse, and with that often comes cultural clashes. Much has been written about the growing cultural divide (e.g., James D. Hunter’s The Cultural Wars: The Struggle to Define America, 1992; Morris P. Fiorina, et. al.’s Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 2004; and Samuel P. Huntington’s Who Are We?: The Challenge to America’s National Identity, 2004). We appear deeply divided over issues relating to religion, immigration, voter registration, and educational curriculum. Perhaps the current red state-blue state voting pattern is a manifestation of this growing rift. Will we be able to come together or will our people continue to drift apart?
Poorin’ or Drinkin’?
Hence, there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about the future of our Constitution and the Republic it creates. In pondering whether our nation is ascending or declining, I am reminded of the commencement address delivered at the University of Missouri by the great humorist and humanitarian, Bill Cosby. Dr. Cosby told the large assembly of the days when he was a struggling young student at Temple University. He has a political science professor that frequently asked rhetorical questions. At the close of class on a Friday afternoon, the professor asked the class to consider whether the glass he was holding was half full or half empty. That weekend Bill pondered the question, then asked his grandmother what she thought. Cosby’s grandmother, an elderly woman with just a third grade education, quickly responded. “That’s easy, Bill, it depends on whether you’ra pourin’ or a drinkin’!”
Let us return to the central question of this lecture: Will our Constitution last? Perhaps it depends on our perspective and whether you think we are “poorin’ or drinkin.’” Personally, I would like to think we are still pouring. But I do agree with Professor Arnold Toynbee (Civilization on Trial, 1948) that our fate will depend upon the ability of our leaders to meet successive challenges. But the leaders I am talking about are civic leaders.
The Role of Civic Leaders
Leadership is the ability to influence the behavior of individuals in a group or organization in order to achieve some common goal. It is the art of inspiring, motivating, and achieving. Leadership is the driving force behind any company, regiment, school, firm, union, church, agency or nation. And civic leaders are those who are motivated by the public good, as opposed to pure self-interest. But how do you define public good? To borrow a phrase from Justice Potter Stewart, “I don’t know how to define public interest, but I know what it is when I see it.” The closest anyone has come to defining it, in my opinion, was my late colleague at the University of Missouri, Professor Lloyd Manning Wells. He said, “Public interest is what makes young men and women go to war for their country, and old men and women plant trees.”
I recall a public opinion survey some years ago that indicated that only 19 percent of all Americans ever attend a public meeting, such as a PTA meeting or city council meeting. That same survey also indicated only 12 percent ever took the time to contact a public official, and only about ten percent of the citizens ever contributed to a political campaign. Perhaps this is accurate. But here is what friend once told me, and I believe it to be fairly accurate. In any organization, be it a school, church or civic organization, only about one or two percent of the people make things happen. There are roughly another five to six percent who will help you make those things happen. These are the people who will help you sell the tickets, park the cars, set up chairs, clean up, etc. Roughly five percent of the people follow each and every thing that goes on in the organization. These are the citizens who read the newspapers, follow the news, and meet in coffee shops, faculty lounges, or around the water cooler and solve the world’s problems every day. But they don’t do anything! And the rest of the people, the remaining 76 to 78 percent ask, what, “What happened?” Why have my taxes gone up? Why did government do this or that? Well, tonight, I believe I am talking to the top six percent—the civic leaders who can make things happen.
There are common elements that all effective civic leaders must possess. I believe effective civic leaders today must: a) have a vision, b) stand firm on principles, c) be effective politicians, and d) possess the broad knowledge that a liberal arts education can provide. Let us look at each element.
The first element of civic leadership is vision. As Carl Sandburg notes, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” Every great leader has a vision of what needs to be done, what people need to do and in what direction the enterprise must head. That’s exactly what James Madison did when he crafted the Virginia Plan, the blueprint of our Constitution, in the solitude of his room in Montpelier! Don’t underestimate the importance of vision and imagination. Look at everything in this room—the lights, your cell phone, the chairs you are sitting on, the audio visual equipment, your glasses, etc. Every great idea, invention or social movement started in the mind of just one person. And that person can be you. It is the leader’s primary responsibility to generate that vision, to breathe life into an organization, to energize people, to look to the future---it is the hallmark of all great civic leaders.
It is not enough just to envision something. Civic leadership requires action. And the most effective leaders, in my opinion, are innovators, people who are unafraid to take risks and willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle difficult tasks. Anybody can sit on the sidelines and criticize. It takes a real civic leader to take action. Perhaps the ultimate reason why most people don’t get involved is their fear of what others may think.
We can learn from Aesop’s words, some 26 centuries ago. Aesop told the fable of “The Man, the Boy and the Donkey.” According to the story, an old man and the little boy lived in the mountains, and set out one morning to sell their small donkey in the village below. The man and boy began their long journey by leading the donkey down the twisting pathway. Soon they encountered critics along the road who mocked the old man and boy—“Look at that old man and little boy, there they are walking when they could be riding that sure-footed donkey.” The man thought the critics were right. So the man and the boy mounted the donkey and continued their trek. They soon encountered other critics--“Look at the old man and little boy, they are going to break the donkey’s back.” Thinking the critics were correct, the old man dismounted and led the donkey as the little boy rode. Again, they encountered other critics--“Look at that lazy little boy riding, while that poor old man has to walk.” Believing the critics, the old man got on the donkey and let the little boy lead. Once again, they met other critics who said, “Look at that lazy old man riding, while that poor little boy has to walk.” At the end of the story, according to Aesop, the old man and little boy carried the donkey to town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please everyone. You cannot make everyone like you. No matter what you do, there will be critics. Building a consensus is one thing, but waiting around for 100 percent approval before you take action will get you nowhere. Remember, they don’t make statues to honor critics: that is reserved for real leaders who are not afraid to take action and suffer the critics.
The second element of civic leadership is the commitment to principles, that is, moral or ethical standards. In his last public address (April 11, 1865), Abraham Lincoln said, “Important principles may, and must be, inflexible.” I believe that all inspiring leaders—Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr.—knew that every great movement must be based on principles. It is not always easy to hold firm to your core values. Perhaps the principles most valued are honesty, integrity, and respect for your fellow citizens. Of course, all civic leaders make mistakes. But the most successful ones are those who admit to their errors in judgment, learn from their mistakes, and vow not to do it again. And for the most part, Americans have the capacity to forgive almost anything if you confess your transgressions and vow not to repeat them. What Americans don’t tolerate in their civic leaders, however, is hypocrisy.
Effective civic leaders are good politicians. Let’s face it. Most people see politics as something sordid, nasty, corrupt, or an activity that good people should avoid. And this is understandable, considering what people have said about politics over the years. Consider just a few of the digs. Ambrose Bierce once wrote, “Politics is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” New Dealer Louis McHenry Howe quipped, “One does not adopt politics as a profession and remain honest.” And then there was that famous scene in the movie Forrest Gump, when the doctor told Mrs. Gump, “Forrest’s legs are fine, Mrs. Gump, but his spine is as crooked as a politician.”
Politics is the art of drawing dividing lines. This is my definition of politics. Lines, lines, everywhere there are lines. Lines are any real or imaginary set of points that people use to distinguish, separate, identify, classify or categorize any person, thing or idea. Indeed, from the beginning of time, the world has been filled with lines. Lines can be found on a football field, on a highway, in tax schedules, in military ranks, national boundaries, city limits, or classifications of ideology. Line drawing is instinctive, innate and universal. They are found in all cultures, nationalities, and races. And any person who has the authority and legitimacy to draw a dividing line is a politician, whether that person is a parent, teacher, preacher, accountant, supervisor, coach, judge or an elected public official.
The Constitution is filled with dividing lines. Some of the lines are bright lines that are precisely drawn. For example, a person must be 30 years old to be a U.S. Senator or 18 to vote in federal elections. But most of the lines are fuzzy and subject to interpretation, such as “cruel or unusual punishment,” “probable cause,” “establishment of religion,” or “ex post facto laws.” When the Supreme Court decides what these concepts mean, they are drawing dividing lines. But, to be successful, politicians must be grounded in principles. Above, all, politicians must look for the natural breaks and seek a proper balance between what most people will consider right or just. The worst thing a politician can do is draw an artificial line, one that is perceived to be unfair or unjust, and one that will allow the opposition to break through the line and redound in uncertainty. Again, effective civic leaders are skilled politicians who understand and can practice the art of drawing dividing lines.
Breadth of Knowledge
Finally, it is essential that today’s civic leaders, like those of our Framers, be grounded in the liberal arts. The arts and sciences offer us a well-rounded education, as opposed to specialized, technical training. Rather than teaching us “what” to think, the liberal arts education teaches us “how” to think. Technical training, while critically important to the functioning of our society, is often ephemeral. Learning how to use a machine or a computer is important, but think how quickly machines and computers become obsolete. The liberal arts and sciences provide us with tools to continue learning for a lifetime.
The study of mathematics and philosophy will sharpen your analytical thinking. The study of chemistry, physics and biology will enable us to understand the complexities of our world. The study of English and foreign languages will enable us to communicate more effectively. History will give us perspectives on our lives. Courses in religious studies, women studies and African-American studies will foster understanding. The study of psychology will enable us to understand ourselves, and the study of anthropology and sociology will enable us to understand how people act in groups and in society. And of course, the study of politics will teach us to govern and to know where to draw the dividing lines.
Only civic leaders empowered with education, experience and knowledge, will be able to balance the two most important struggles we face in our Constitutional democracy—the never-ending struggle between 1) liberty and authority, and 2) liberty with equality.
The survival of our Constitution and republic that it spawned will depend upon civic leaders who possess the broad understanding of our highly complex and highly interrelated social, cultural, economic and political system that only a liberal arts education can bring. “Anybody can steer the ship,” John Maxwell writes, “but it takes a real leader to chart the course.” I believe that any technical expert can carry out day-to-day functions, but it will take someone educated in the liberal arts and sciences to chart the course.
Final Words of Wisdom
It has been said, “In all things essential—unity, in all else—diversity.” We Americans come in all kinds of packages; we are a diverse people, people of different races, ethnic heritage, religious convictions, musical tastes, ideologies and philosophical beliefs. Aside from our common language, we share at least one common thread—our Constitution. Do not take this great document for granted. Learn to appreciate its historical roots and comprehend its words. Understand that it is not a perfect document; rather, it is a political document, and that politics is really the art of drawing dividing lines.
I believe that Chief Justice Warren Burger best sums up what our Constitution is about. According to Burger: “The Constitution does not solve our problems. It allows people the freedom and opportunity to solve their own problems; it provides for representatives of the people to help solve problems; it provides an executive to enforce the laws and administer government; it provides a judicial branch to say what the law means. From there on it is up to the people.”
Ultimately, the fate of our Constitution depends on civic leaders. I will leave you with this aphorism offered by the sage Benjamin Franklin. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. And for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. Oh, you see, the kingdom was lost for want of a horseshoe nail. My fellow citizens, civic leaders one and all, you are, I am, we are those proverbial horseshoe nails, and together, we can and will make a difference.
And I thank you very much!
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