Thomas Jefferson said that “the greatest danger to American freedom is a government that ignores the Constitution” and Thomas Edison said that “the strength of the Constitution lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it”.
These quotes summarize the importance of the U.S. Constitution. Without the Constitution, the U.S. government would not be constrained. This means that the government could and would abuse its power and take away freedom (read my post on Ambition Counteracting Ambition to learn more about this). However, I want to challenge you to think about something.
What is the Constitution…really? No, really. What is it?
Simply, it’s a very old piece of paper. (I know, you may be rolling your eyes here and thinking, “Well yeah, of course its a piece of paper but is that really what you’re asking?” Yes.) Very literally, the Constitution is a piece of paper. While you may know this in your mind, do you really know this? Do you realize that, in and of itself, the Constitution (a piece of paper) has no power?
Why? Because, it is merely a piece of paper! This is why Edison’s quote is so important. The Constitution is only powerful as long as citizens and government officials reverence and defend it. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, which means that it is supreme over the government. Citizens and politicians alike are subject to the Constitution. No one is above the law.
However, government officials are not above the law as long we, the citizens, keep them accountable to the law. Our reverence, our respect and our honor for the law (The Constitution) are what legitimize the law and keep those in power in check and subject to the law. This means that it is vitally important for every citizen to know what the Constitution says in order to know if/when the government is actually following it…or not (check out this link to buy yourself your own personal copy of the US Constitution).
Ok, so I’ve set the stage here for a short series of articles that I’m going to write about the Constitution so that you can actively keep your government accountable to it.
Article I: Part One
Article I of the Constitution focuses on the legislative branch. The most important aspect of Article I is this: it says what Congress can and cannot do.
The first thing you need to know about the legislative branch is that it is the law-making branch of government, making it the most important branch of government (see my post explaining why that is the case). However, the Constitution gives Congress a specific set of limitations about what subjects it can write law about and all other subjects are left to the states to write laws about.
Here are the first few topics that Congress can write laws about (taken directly from the Constitution):
Congress is the only branch that has the power to tax.
Remember, no taxation without representation. Since Congress represents the people, Congress is the branch that should have the power to tax (this comes from John Locke’s theory. Read my blog post on why theory is so important).
To borrow money on the credit of the United States
To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;
This “clause” is affectionately referred to as the “commerce clause”. The courts have extensively broadened Congress’ range of power through the use of the commerce clause. I’m not going to explore this in detail right now, but understand that it is within Congressional power to regulate commerce among the states. And that is ok! That is what Congress is supposed to do; but, this power is dangerous when the courts provide no limits to it.
To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;
This means that only Congress can make laws about how immigrants are supposed to become citizens. Pay attention here. CONGRESS is tasked with the job of writing immigration law. Not the states and not the president.
To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures;
Congress can write laws regarding the value of money so that there is a universal value among all the states.
To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States;
To establish post offices and post roads;
These are rather straight forward powers.
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries;
The founders, understanding that men are selfish and will abuse their power, established government to protect private property. So, they included the power of copyright and trademark so that Congress could protect and hence allow unfettered innovation!
… to be continued.
There are quite a few more subjects that Congress can write laws about. I’ve attached them at the end of this article and will continue to explain and explore them in my next Constitution for Dummies post. However, the main point I want you to take from this first post, is that nowhere (detailed here or in the rest of the list) does the Constitution give Congress the ability or right to “regulate education” or “control the climate” or “establish a federal drinking age”. If you read what Congress is Constitutionally allowed to write laws about and compare it to what Congress actually writes laws about, you’d be astounded. But without knowing what the Constitution says, you would not see the discrepencies.
What the Constitution says Congress can do is what Congress should do and nothing else. Once Congress begins to do more than what the Constitution allows, there is no limit to its power anymore. The founders knew that people with power were naturally going to go after more power … meaning that the US government is going to expand its power as long as American citizens allow it. We allow it when we don’t know that they are expanding their power!
So, tune it to each of my posts about the Constitution so that you can catch when Congress is writing a law that is not within their power to write (e.g. a federal drinking age).
Until next time!
The Liberty Belle
I will discuss the following legislative powers in future posts.
To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations;
To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
To provide and maintain a navy;
To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.