Saturday, July 5, 2008

Thoughts on The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States and The Federalist Papers

Whoever came up with the idea of posting on the 5th failed to take into consideration how tired she would be after staying up to celebrate the 4th of July.

Alright, down to business. First off, I really enjoyed reading through these selections and found that the more I read through and about them, the more I wanted to read other things in connection to them. I finally understand why it's important to read all those philosophers' works we're always hearing about, and I've taken the time to really think through some of the wording of these documents and was able to come to some opinions on my own that wouldn't have happened just by listening to teachers or the media. (That makes me feel smart.)

The basic historical facts behind the American Founding Documents:

The second Continental Congress met May 10, 1775 (three weeks after the battles at Lexington and Concord). On June 7th, the idea of dissolving ties with Britain was introduced. Four days later, a committee was assembled to produce a draft of a declaration of independence. The draft, written by Thomas Jefferson, was finished within two weeks. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin reviewed the draft and added 47 amendments before it was presented to the whole Congress on June 28, 1775.

A year later, on the second of July, Congress formally adopted the resolution declaring independence from Great Britain. Thirty nine changes to the Declaration were made and on July 4, 1776, the actual Declaration of Independence was drafted and formally adopted by Congress.

The Declaration's first public appearance was in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6th and George Washington had the Declaration read to his army in New York on July 9th. That night a mob of New Yorkers tore down the statue of George III located on the Bowling Green at the foot of Broadway.

The Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781, but problems soon became apparent and led to the need for a stronger centralized government, which spurred the creation of the Constitution. The Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and received enough votes for ratification in 1788.

The Bill of Rights was introduced in 1789 and became effective in 1791.

The Declaration of Independence:
It's mind-blowing to me to even try to think about the enormity of what the Founding Fathers did. Here's a colony of the greatest ruling power in the world (which also had the best military forces), and they muster up the courage to declare independence from that country, all in the name of the philosophical ideal of democracy. These people believed so strongly in the "unalienable rights" of each person that they intentionally took on Great Britain and all its power. "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." That last line is almost chilling to me because those men entered into that battle knowing full well that the odds were stacked against them and they still were so committed to their convictions that they pledged up front that they were in it to their last breath. All they had was their faith in their God that what they were doing was the right thing, and their wealth and lives, and they pledged it all to the cause of liberty. That's courage. I can only hope that I will be as valiant when called to such a task.

This had never been done before. Despite the many philosophical reasonings declaring that government should be by the voice of the people, it's not hard to see why monarchies pervaded. Sure, rulers and dynasties had been overthrown time and time again, but only to be replaced by a new ruler and/or ruling family. The American Declaration of Independence from its mother country was a huge event in history. It flew in the face of reason; and what's more surprising, it actually worked! There is no way that it should have worked, but it did. It is my personal belief that the American Revolution had a lot of help from Providence. You won't come to that conclusion by reading the textbooks of today, but if you hunt down the primary sources and read the first-hand accounts, you will find many eery "coincidences" and events that defy reasoning.

Another line from the Declaration really resonated with me:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be
changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath
shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than
to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But
when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same
Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their
right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards
for their future security.

Isn't that a candid observation? It made me think of the things and people in my own life that dictate to me what to do or promote suffering or ill will. This had made me think about my worth as a person and how it is my own responsibility to throw off the abusive things and relationships that are present in my life. I think the Declaration of Independence still serves us today in the role of affirming the worth of each individual.

Something that is bothering me though--if each individual has the inherent right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, it doesn't sit well with me that women can just run amuck and abort their unborn children simply because they don't want them. I think a child in the womb has just as much right to Life, Freedom and the chance to find their own happiness as a child outside of the womb. It's not my intention to make this club into a hot political debate, but part of gaining wisdom and becoming truly educated does demand that we think through the hard questions of our day.

The Constitution of the United States:
We are blessed to live in a country that is governed by its own people, instead of the whims of a monarch or dictator. It's unfortunate that the two pre-eminent political parties of this country are becoming rather polarized, but it's still a blessing that the people can decide for its self what they would like to happen. I'm glad that I can voice my opinion and hopefully sway legislation to go in the direction that I believe is best. At least we have that. When laws are passed that I disagree with, I always have the hopeful chance of changing it for the better.

Some things that came up as I read through the Bill of Rights:

  1. What, exactly, is speech? It is my understanding that the first amendment was created to allow people to speak out against the government without fear of persecution. The first amendment allows for free speech--and speech is speaking, oral communication, the written word and the use of gestures to communicate (ie. sign language). I cannot understand how it can be stretched to cover pornography or offensive art and photographs.
    I attended my church's General Conference a few years back, and at the conclusion of the session I walked out and saw the usual throng of protesters--and one group had this huge banner of a full-color, dismembered fetus as a way to protest against abortion. It was grotesque. And it pained my heart to look into the crowd of my fellow church members and to see the multitude of young children who were witnessing that image. I don't think free speech necessarily covers the use of images--a banner with the words "Abortion is wrong," or something like that, would have been perfectly acceptable. (And why in the world was an pro-life group protesting a church that also opposes abortion?)
    Free speech also doesn't give free license to artists to flaunt indecency. Lyrics are covered by the amendment, but I highly doubt that the raunchy "bump & grind" theatrics of many concerts come even remotely close to being a form of speech.
  2. The second amendment gives us the right to bear arms, and I am looked at like I have three heads if I say that I have a gun in my house, especially since I have young children. It's important that we keep arms in the event of emergencies and danger. What happens if our military is wiped out or our government is somehow overthrown? I am thankful for the guaranteed right to protect myself. Yes, guns in the wrong hands do a lot of damage. I can't fix that. But if there were more guns in the hands of the right people, what are the odds that the wrong people would be so eager to whip theirs out? How do you think the American Revolution would have turned out if all those farmers hadn't already had guns of their own? I consider it a patriotic duty to not only have a gun, but to also know how to use a gun well.
  3. The fifth amendment has this one phrase that says a person should not "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..." and it made me think of Child Protection Services. I think it's fair to ascertain that my children are my "property," and I also think it completely goes against my Constitutional rights to snatch them out of my home simply because CPS thinks I'm guilty of a crime against them. Yes, CPS is a necessary in our society; but we've all heard tons of stories about children being ripped from their homes because CPS suspected abuse, and then those reports of abuse being unfounded. We are innocent until proven guilty, period. If I haven't been tried and convicted of child abuse, then no one has the right to take my children away from me. I admit, this particular example is a double-edged sword; we don't want children to stay within a potentially abusive situation, but we do have this right to our property and I think CPS's ability to remove children based upon suspicion is downright unconstitutional. (And no, I don't have a solution to the problem at the moment...except to perhaps, just maybe, gather enough evidence to arrest the offender and then keep them in jail until their trial?)

The Federalist Papers:
I was only able to read #1, 2 and 10. The thing that stuck with me after reading them was the necessity of good and virtuous people being involved in government. Our government was set up to weed out the bad politicians and to keep wicked people from positions of leadership, but it only works if the good and honest people rise up to the challenge and serve their country. The pervading opinion of politicians is that they're evil and horrible; and if that's the case, we have only ourselves to blame. The ideal politician is a humble, honest and good person; if you consider yourself one of those, perhaps you should be in politics.
I really liked the message of #10, about how our government protects against factions. Recently in my town, there were windmills installed to generate electricity in an environmentally-friendly manner. My goodness, you should have seen the fit that people threw over those things because they considered them to be an eyesore. The city had gone about getting the windmills approved in the correct governmental manner, but the people who didn't want them didn't show up to the meetings. Federalist paper #10 lauds the importance of the "common good." When you considered what the windmills could do for the town, at the expense of simply being an eyesore for a few people, it didn't make sense that the anti-windmill people should have been in such an uproar. We really do need a better commitment to the common good. (And yes, I can see the windmills from my house and they are an eyesore; but they're doing a good thing and I think that's more important than my view from my driveway.)

Whew, that's a long post. This has been good to really read these and then have to sit down and write about them because it forced me to really think about them. Hopefully you all feel the same way. Leave your (relevant) thoughts or a link to your own thought posts in the comments section and I'll choose from them on the 10th to send August's book to.

And speaking of August's book, the next historical event on the schedule is the French Revolution and we have three choices to vote on. Voting will end June 9th at 11:59pm.


The Allred Family said...

It was good for me to read through these documents. It's been a long time since I have read The Declaration of Independence or The Constitution. I was actually on the “Constitution Bowl” when I was in school, so I used to know a lot of details about this time period, but I have forgotten a lot of it. It was nice to study these documents, and to be able to explain the 4th of July to my son. I had a better appreciation and understanding of the holiday after reading through the Declaration. I am so grateful for the sacrifices and bravery of our forefathers, to make this country what it is.

The thing that was of more interest for me was The Federalist Papers. I have never read them before, and I wasn't able to read all of them; I'm still working on that, but I’ll tell you some of the parts that stuck out to me.

In the very first paper, Hamilton says, “I will not amuse you with the appearance of deliberation, when I have decided. I frankly acknowledge to you my convictions, and I will freely lay before you the reasons on which they are founded. The consciousness of good intentions disdains ambiguity.” This was a good way to begin the papers. He admits that he is in favor of adopting the constitution. He obviously is an honest guy, who isn’t going to try to trick you by being vague, or trying to “sway voters”. There aren’t many politicians who are like this today. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was?! The founders of our nation truly were amazing leaders, who only wanted the best for this new land.

The section that I liked in No. 2 was when John Jay said, “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous and alien sovereignties.” I am of the mindset that the hand of God was pertinent in the foundation of this country. I am so grateful for the freedoms that we enjoy, and it is obvious that it was the design of providence. That is why it bugs me so much when people want to remove God from the money and the Pledge of Allegiance. That is what this country was founded on, and I do not think it should be changed, just because we are concerned about being “politically correct”.

I had also never realized that there were a lot of people who wanted to keep the states separate. I can’t imagine how many wars and conflicts that would have created by having 13, or even just 3 or 4, separate governments. There were obviously many advantages to being a united government, which they pointed out in several of the papers. In terms of safety, commerce, war, treaties, and more.

I heard that number 10 is a pretty popular one. It was an interesting concept that made a lot of sense to me. Factions are very dangerous to a people and their government. By having a united, single government, it protects the people from outrageous factions taking over and denying the citizens of their basic rights. It is easier for a faction to take over when there is a smaller populous, but by uniting all of the colonies into one, those factions will not have the power or ability to assume control. Madison said that one of the ways to prevent faction is to remove the cause. He admitted that this would be dangerous, and not a good option. “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.” It is better to have the possibility of faction, that to take away the liberty and freedom of man.

He went on to say, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.” We all have our opinions, and that is okay, but it is our nature to form into groups and create animosity. It is better to be a united nation, because it is harder for those people with the same passions to all unite and overthrow the government. If there had been several confederacies, they probably would have been overthrown multiple times because of the swaying of the factions.

I also liked No. 84, it talked about the Bill of Rights. The constitution didn’t have a Bill of Rights in the beginning, these were added later. We always talk about how important the Bill of Rights is, but Hamilton argued that we shouldn’t need bills of rights. Bills of rights are necessary in a monarchy, when you have a King holding power and authority over his subjects, to guarantee their basic human rights. He said that it could be dangerous to include bills of rights in the constitution because it would give exceptions to powers which are not granted. “Why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” It was something that the citizens really wanted though, I think they were probably scared that it could turn into a monarchy of some sort, or that the government would try to take too much power. I think the Bill of Rights is a good thing, but even today we argue over what they really mean and what the interpretation of each amendment really means.

Well, I think I went on long enough. Thanks for setting this up, it has been good for me to have something to work on and study. It was fun to read your comments and look at it through your perspective. See you next time!


Mrs. Mordecai said...

I’m always amazed by how short the constitution is. In particular, it’s impressive when you consider the impact it has had worldwide and its ability to hold the country together for so long.

I generally have to remind myself that the constitution is not an enumeration of laws. Rather than listing what we can and can’t do in gritty detail, it focuses on the general process by which laws can be put in place. It trusts the future system as a whole to use prudence while governing itself.

The fact that the constitution is so short is one of the things that made the federalist papers so fascinating for me. It’s interesting to see that just like today, people disagreed on how the constitution should be interpreted. The federalist papers provide hundreds of pages of commentary from the founding fathers on just that – how to correctly interpret and implement the concepts they had so carefully tried to put down on paper.

Why not allow the constitution to more lengthy? Why not state more explicitly what you intended? Why shouldn’t it be just as long as the federalist papers? I can think of several reasons, although I’m sure there are many more: First, not everyone agreed. It’s easier to get people to agree if you only put down the concept and allow the interpretation to be worked out later. Second, I believe the founders may have been scared of saying too much. It would have been arrogant to think that they had the foresight to understand exactly what would be needed for centuries to come. On a more practical note, I also think it was a bit of an aid for the common man. By keeping things short, the founders made the text more accessible to a wider audience: not just lawyers and judges willing to wade through volumes of legalese.

The other thing that intrigued me about the federalist papers was the reason they were written. Their main purpose, in addition to clarifying points of the text, was to convince the American public to vote in favor of its ratification.

Isn’t it amazing to think of being in a position like that? To have an entire constitution placed before you to ratify and uphold or to vote down and reject? What an awesome and unique privilege! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the same opportunity?

And yet – we do. Although we don’t vote periodically to re-ratify the constitution, we have the power to change it as we see fit. Just like those in the past, we have the power to declare that the constitution is not serving the people. Twenty-seven amendments have already proven that point well, with an open invitation for us to continue ensuring that the government serves us, rather than the other way around.

The Declaration of Independence explicitly states that government should be subject to the people. What a wonderful thought. Isn’t it interesting to think that something that feels so right would have to be stated so explicitly? For ages, monarchies and dictatorships lived for little more than to perpetuate their own power.

We have a truly wonderful privilege, but also a unique responsibility. Our government serves us, but only when we step up and take an active roll. In the end, it really is up to us. Will we allow the government to dominate our lives as we passively ignore it? Or will we rise to the challenge and do everything in our part to be active citizens?

Mr. Mordecai


Other interesting tidbits I learned this time around:

1) The state of Rhode Island is actually called “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

2) “Corruption of blood” was a punishment used by the British. It allowed the government to prevent descendants from inheriting property from individuals who had committed treason. Our constitution specifically prohibits this punishment. I found that interesting, considering these gentlemen committed treason against England and could easily have been punished with it.

3) All courts belong to the judicial branch of the government, not just the Supreme Court. That is, in effect, why lower courts can actually make rulings that help shape and define laws, declare items unconstitutional, etc. They have real power.

Mr. Mordecai said...

@Allred Family,

I agree that it's interesting to see how strong the arguments were in favor of keeping more power (and thus separation) in the states. I have to remind myself that the states themselves had each been founded separately by different groups of people with different ideals.

Personally, I find it fascinating to consider the uniting of the states in comparison to the current European Union. In the case of the EU, each state has kept its right to sovereignty, but have made agreements on free trade, etc.

The EU and the United States are two very different things. It's interesting to view in context, though, and wonder how we would be today if the states had been given more power in the beginning.

Mr. Mordecai
(Look, I posted under the right account this time!)

Shimmy Mom said...

I think it reminds us of OUR responsibility to make sure that the government is here to help support these documents, help us and not control us or take rights away.

I am always blown away by what those men sacrificed. And I found out this year of the 56 men that signed the Declaration: 11 were captured, sentenced as traitors and tortured before they were killed. MANY lost all that they had and died poor men. Most of their families had to go into hiding. And one (I can't remember which right now, I'll have to go look it up) had his house taken over by Cornwallis and actually told George Washington to open fire on his own home. He too ended up losing everything.
We have so much and sacrifice so little and yet too many Americans don't study these words and take the responsibility to vote and make their voices heard or write to congressmen etc.
I think that their sacrifices are worth at least that much.

The Allred Family said...

Oh yeah, that gets into the whole public virtue thing - the willingness to sacrifice all you have for the good of the public. The founding fathers sacrificed so much to make this nation free, and a lot of them lost everything, and got nothing back in return. It's hard to imagine anyone being willing to sacrifice all of that these days.

Mrs. Brooke said...

Amy, it's so funny, you quoted things from the Federalist Papers that really stuck out to me as well!

So I'm wondering why it is that the Founding Fathers were so passionate about their country and willing to give up everything for it and it seems that no one really feels that way today? While I was reading through these documents, I was filled with a wonderful spirit of patriotism and it made me want to participate in government...but then I go back to my daily life. How do we capture and maintain that spirit so that it is something of our daily lives?

What is modern patriotism to you? Does it look different today than it would back then? If it does, is it a good thing or should we be trying to re-create the patriotism of old?