by Brenée Goforth
Communications Associate, John Locke Foundation
The Constitution and Its Enemies
This week, JLF’s Jon Guze published an opinion piece in Carolina Journal for Constitution Day 2019. Guze’s piece focused on the principles inherent in the Constitution – limited government, individual liberty, and the rule of law – and the threats they have seen in modern history.
When our Founding Fathers came together to debate the Constitution, they discussed issues such as citizenship, the census, and the role of the Presidency. Most importantly, Guze writes:
The Constitutional Convention delegates who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 understood that preventing bad or incompetent rulers from doing too much damage was an important part of their task. That’s why the Constitution of the United States — which they signed 232 years ago today — included many features that constrained the power of government. The members of the first U.S. Congress and the various state legislatures understood it, too. That’s why the Constitution was amended to include additional constraints in the form of the Bill of Rights. (Emphasis added).
But by the late 19th century, Americans began to waiver in their adherence to the Constitution’s founding principles. Guze explains:
Beginning in the 1890s, self-styled American “progressives” also turned against the ideal of limited, constitutional government. They advocated an alternative system based on centralized control by a technocratic elite, and support for this new approach spread rapidly. By the election of 1912, both Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ran on explicitly progressive platforms. By 1920, the progressives had achieved one of their primary policy goals — the prohibition of alcohol. By 1928, a decision by the most progressive justice on the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, had cleared the way for another goal— racial purification through involuntary sterilization.
The Constitution made passing these policies more difficult, Guze writes:
In order to achieve results like these, progressives had to overcome numerous constitutional impediments, and, because those impediments remained the law of the land, the courts struck down many of the progressives’ other attempts to regulate Americans’ lives.
Guze writes that we cannot be complacent, however, with the mere existence of our democratic institutions. We must protect them from their trespassers:
In “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, [political philosopher Karl Popper] emphasized the need for institutional limits on political power, but he also acknowledged that the mere creation of such institutions is not enough. “Institutions,” he said, “are like fortresses. They must be well designed and well manned.” Fortunately for us, the institutions that make up our constitutional order were both. As a result, we were spared the worst of the devastation that totalitarianism visited upon the world in the 20th century, and we can look forward to the possibility of constitutional revival in the 21st.
We cannot afford to be complacent, however. Today’s would-be philosopher kings are just as hungry for power as their 20th-century predecessors, and they are just as willing to destroy the institutions of constitutional government in order to get it. To prevent that, we must make sure those institutions continue to be well manned in years to come.