We mustn't ignore founders' message

June 25, 2006|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

The Constitution spells it out. To gain his considerable powers, the incoming president much swear before the public: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Why would the men who founded this country bother to put such an oath into the Constitution?

Was it just to bind the oath-taker by compelling him to make a solemn commitment? The problem with that answer is that such a commitment is likely to be of least use just where it is most needed.

An honorable person might be restrained by the oath he has taken, but the honorable person is not the one with whom the Constitution is concerned. The fear behind the Constitution, rather, concerns what an unprincipled and ruthless person will do.

For such an unscrupulous person, the oath will be no great barrier to the usurpation the Constitution is supposed to prevent. And does not our recent experience in America bear this out?

Is it not evident that the kind of people who will deliberately misinform Congress on the gravest of national issues, who will trample on laws duly passed by Congress, who will transgress the nation's treaty obligations, who will put forward arguments to justify their lawless conduct that are but transparent rationalizations for their usurpation - that such individuals will not be restrained by the mere recitation of an oath, however solemn and however public the occasion on which it is taken?

The American founders who put together our Constitution were no fools. Indeed, their work stands as one of the great achievements of human history. And in view of the sagacity of our founders, and in view of the paradox that such an oath will work least where it's needed most, why would these brilliant men bother crafting this oath to be repeated every four years in the swearing in of the president?

The answer, I would suggest, is that it was a message to us, the American people.

It was a way of telling the generations of Americans to come what is the key to the blessings of freedom and self-government they bequeathed to us. It was a way of telling us that the Constitution is the heart and soul of this American nation.

The president is not required to promise that he'll defeat America's external enemies. Nor that he will maintain the nation's standard of living. By requiring him to promise, rather, that he'll be a guardian of the Constitution, our founders were making sure that the generations of Americans to come would be reminded every four years that it is the Constitution that is the foundation for the nation's well-being.

It is the Constitution that has given a dozen generations of Americans not only liberty and self-governance but also a degree of domestic tranquillity exceptional by historic standards, and a level of general welfare that has been the envy of other nations.

Now may be a moment when this message from our founders is more urgent than ever before in the more than two centuries since the Constitution was written - now, when that Constitution, with its carefully constructed system of checks and balances, is under unprecedented assault.

Yet, in the face of this extraordinary presidential power-grab, the opinion polls indicate that the rising price of gasoline is of far greater concern than the unconstitutional usurpation of power.

But we should ask which of our blessings would survive the dismantling of our constitutional system. If the tyranny the Constitution was framed to prevent were allowed to arise, how long would it be before the historic norm in the distribution of wealth - almost all for the ruling few and mere subsistence for the exploited many - would arise here in America? How long before the expansive feeling of the free human spirit would be constrained into the abject posture of the subservient?

It is time for us Americans to wake up and get the message.

Andrew Bard Schmooker is the creator of the Web site www.NoneSoBlind.org. His lives in Albuquerque, N.M. His e-mail is andythebard@comcast.net.

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