Archive for the 'History' Category

The Lamp of Experience: Constitutional Amendments Work

Posted by on Mar 09 2014 | Constitutional Amendments, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Constitutional Theory, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Freedom of Speech, History, Natelson Rob', Rob Natelson, U.S. Constitution

(This article originally appeared in the American Thinker.)

Opponents of a Convention of States long argued that there was an unacceptable risk a convention might do too much. It now appears they were mistaken. So they increasingly argue that amendments cannot do enough.

The “too much” contention was first promulgated in modern times by apologists for the liberal, ultra-activist Earl Warren/Warren Burger Supreme Court. Specifically, these apologists feared a convention might propose amendments to reverse their favorite judicial decisions. Their tactic was to claim that an amendments convention, even if legally limited, could turn into a “con-con” that disregarded its limits, repealed the Bill of Rights, and restored slavery. (Yes, some of them really said that.)

The liberals who promoted this scenario must have been amused when some deeply conservative groups fell into the trap and began using the same argument to kill conservative amendments.

The “too much” line, however, has been losing its persuasiveness. New research shows it to be legally and historically weak, and Americans increasingly are pondering the very real dangers of not resorting to the convention process the Founders bequeathed to us.

Hence the shift to the “too little” argument. Its gist is that amendments would accomplish nothing because federal officials would violate amendments as readily as they violate the original Constitution.

Opponents will soon find their new position even less defensible than the old. This is because the contention that amendments are useless flatly contradicts over two centuries of American experience — experience that demonstrates that amendments work. In fact, amendments have had a major impact on American political life, mostly for good.

* * * *

The Framers inserted an amendment process into the Constitution to render the underlying system less fragile and more durable. They saw the amendment mechanism as a way to:

* correct drafting errors;
* resolve constitutional disputes, such as by reversing bad Supreme Court decisions;
* respond to changed conditions, and
* correct and forestall governmental abuse.

The Framers turned out to be correct, because in the intervening years we have adopted amendments for all four of those reasons. Today, nearly all of these amendments are accepted by the overwhelming majority of Americans, and all but very few remain in full effect. Possibly because ratification of a constitutional amendment is a powerful expression of popular political will, amendments have proved more durable than some parts of the original Constitution.

Following are some examples:

Correcting drafting errors

Although the Framers were very great people, they still were human, and they occasionally erred. Thus, they inserted in the Constitution qualifications for Senators, Representatives, and the President, but omitted any for Vice President. They also adopted a presidential/vice presidential election procedure that, while initially plausible, proved unacceptable in practice.

The founding generation proposed and ratified the Twelfth Amendment to correct those mistakes. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment addressed some other deficiencies in Article II, which deals with the presidency. (My reference to a particular amendment does not mean I agree with every provision in it.)

Both the Twelfth and Twenty-Fifth Amendments are in full effect today.

Resolving constitutional disputes and overruling the Supreme Court

The Framers wrote most of the Constitution in clear language, but they knew that, as with any legal document, there would be differences of interpretation. The amendment process was a way of resolving interpretative disputes.

The founding generation employed it for this purpose just seven years after the Constitution came into effect. In Chisholm v. Georgia, the Supreme Court misinterpreted the wording of Article III that defines the jurisdiction of the federal courts. The Eleventh Amendment reversed that decision.

In 1857, the Court issued Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which it erroneously interpreted the Constitution to deny citizenship to African Americans. The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment reversed that case.

In the 1970, the Court decided Oregon v. Mitchell, whose misinterpretation of the Constitution created a national election law mess. A year later, Americans cleaned up the mess by ratifying the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

All these Amendments are in full effect today, and fully respected by the courts. Some argue, in fact, that the Supreme Court actually over-enforces the Eleventh Amendment — a contention with which I do not agree.

Responding to Changed Conditions

The Twentieth Amendment is the most obvious example of a response to changed conditions. Reflecting improvements in transportation since the Founding, it moved the inauguration of Congress and President from March to the January following election.

Other amendments as well were wholly or partially triggered by changed conditions. The Seventeenth Amendment, which transferred elections for Senators from the state legislatures to the people, is still controversial in some quarters. But it was adopted only after social changes had caused widespread breakdown in the prior election system. (That is why the state legislatures themselves sought the change.) With the partial exception of Mark Levin, few if any of its critics address the very real problems the Seventeenth Amendment was designed to solve.

Similarly, the Nineteenth Amendment, which assured women the vote in states not already granting it, was passed for reasons beyond simple fairness. When the Constitution was written, overwhelming domestic duties and very short female life expectancies effectively disqualified most women from politics. During the 1800s, medical and technological advances made possible by a vigorous market economy improved the position of women immeasurably and rendered their political participation far more feasible. Without these changes, I doubt the Nineteenth Amendment would have been adopted.

Needless to say, the Seventeenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Amendments all are in full effect many years after they were ratified.

Correcting and forestalling government abuse

Avoiding and correcting government abuse was a principal reason the Constitutional Convention unanimously inserted the state-driven convention procedure into Article V. Our failure to use that procedure helps explain why the earlier constitutional barriers against federal overreaching seem a little ragged. Before looking at the problems, however, let’s look at some successes:

* We adopted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments to correct state abuses of power. All of these are in substantially full effect.

* In 1992, we ratified the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, 203 years after James Madison first proposed it. It limits congressional pay raises, although some would say not enough.

* In 1951, we adopted the Twenty-Second Amendment, limiting the President to two terms. Eleven Presidents later, it remains in full force, and few would contend it has not made a difference.

Now the problems: Because we have not used the convention process, the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) remain almost the only amendments significantly limiting congressional overreaching. I suppose that if the Founders had listened to the “amendments won’t make any difference” crowd, they would not have adopted the Bill of Rights either. But I don’t know anyone today who seriously claims the Bill of Rights has made no difference.

In fact, the Bill of Rights continues to have a huge impact more than two centuries after adoption. The courts enforce, to at least some extent, all of the original ten except, arguably, the Ninth. Some, such as the First Amendment, have been “super enforced.” Others, such as the Second and Fourth are under relentless pressure, but remain far better than nothing at all.

What about the Ninth and Tenth? They are certainly under-enforced today, but we must remember that they enjoyed full effect for nearly 150 years. No reasonable person would classify 150 years of effect as anything but a stellar political success. Even today, the Tenth retains some of its power, as Congress learned when the Supreme Court upended its effort to corral all the states into the Obamacare Medicaid expansion.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience,” Patrick Henry said. “I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.”

In this case, the lamp of experience sheds light unmistakably bright and clear: Constitutional amendments work.

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Emmy nomination for 1951 Colorado Inside Out

Posted by on Jun 14 2012 | History, Politics, television, Uncategorized

Every year the political roundtable show Colorado Inside Out does a time machine episode. Last year’s 1951 episode has just been nominated for a regional Emmy Award, in the news/interview program category. Our topics for the episode were the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Korean War, duck and cover training, and the new federal government center in Denver. Characters were the famous singer and actress Ethel Merman, who had recently moved to Denver (played by Westword publisher Patty Calhoun), newspaperman Al Nakula (played by former Rocky Mountain News journalist Kevin Flynn), sociology professor Lois Waddell (played by Dani Newsum), and southern Colorado newspaper editor Cecil Koplowitz (played by me, evoking my father’s first journalism job, in Walsenberg).

We  are getting ready to tape a new episode, which will be set in 1912. Patty Calhoun will portray Denver socialite and social climber Molly Brown. I’m busy reading about the Balkan War which began in 1912. The episode will premiere on Friday, July 6.

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D-Day thoughts

Posted by on Jun 06 2012 | guns, History, Militia, War and Armed Conflict

In a column from 2000, I examined what military historians suggest might have happened if the D-Day landings had been repulsed. Or what if they had taken place in 1943 instead of 1944? The short answers are that if D-Day had failed, Stalin would have ended up occupying almost all of German, which would have significantly changed the balance of power in the Cold War. Had the Allies invaded France in 1943, rather than invading Sicily, they probably would have made faster progress than they did in 1944. VE Day would have come a year earlier, with the Allies capturing most of Germany.

In 1994, Dan Gifford and I wrote that “D-Day was almost a German holiday.” That is, in the darkest days of the war, defending U.S. coastal areas was a crucial concern. Fortunately, the states were able to call forth their self-armed citizen militias for coastal defense, while the U.S. Army and National Guard were busy elsewhere.

 

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The Great Gun Control War of the 20th Century — And its Lessons for Gun Laws Today

Posted by on May 31 2012 | Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Fourteenth Amendment, guns, History, McDonald v. City of Chicago, Politics, Popular Constitutionalism, Registration, Right to carry, supreme court

This is the subject of my article in a forthcoming symposium issue of the Fordham Urban Law Journal. The article details the political, cultural, social, and legal battles over gun control from the 1920s to the early 21st century. Here’s the abstract:

A movement to ban handguns began in the 1920s in the Northeast, led by the conservative business establishment. In response, the National Rifle Association began to get involved in politics, and was able to defeat handgun prohibition. Gun control and gun rights became the subjects of intense political, social, and cultural battles for much of the rest of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

Often, the battles were a clash of absolutes: One side contended that there was absolutely no right to arms, that defensive gun ownership must be prohibited, and that gun ownership for sporting purposes could be, at most, allowed as a very limited privilege. Another side asserted that the right to arms was absolute, and that any gun control laws were infringements of that right.

By the time that Heller and McDonald came to the Supreme Court, the battles had mostly been resolved; the Supreme Court did not break new ground, but instead reinforced what had become the American consensus: the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, especially for self-defense, is a fundamental individual right. That right, however, is not absolute. There are some gun control laws which do not violate the right, particularly laws which aim to keep guns out of the hands of people who have proven themselves to be dangerous.

In the post-Heller world, as in the post-Brown v. Board world, a key role of the courts will be to enforce federal constitutional rights against some local or state jurisdictions whose extreme laws make them outliers from the national consensus.

Also recently published in SSRN is a very good draft article by David Hardy, analyzing the four opinions in McDonald v. Chicago. As he persuasively shows, the arguments by Justice Stevens and Breyer against enforcing the Right to Keep and Bear Arms against the states would, if taken seriously, cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of enforcing against the states almost everything else in the Bill of Rights.

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House Tax bleg

Posted by on May 16 2012 | History, Taxing and Spending Clause

In July 1798, Congress enacted a direct tax to raise revenue for national defense against France. The “House Tax” imposed taxes on land, houses, and slaves. As required by Article I, section 9, clause 4 of the Constitution, this direct tax was apportioned by state population. Fries’s Rebellion, which was eventually suppressed by President Adams, involved violent resistance to this tax, based on the claim that the tax was unconstitutional. Because the direct tax was properly apportioned, it seems perfectly constitutional to me. Does anyone know the specifics of the constitutional objection to the House Tax?

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How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution

Posted by on May 14 2012 | Constitutional History, guns, History, Militia, Religion, Religious Freedom

I posted a draft of this article a few months ago, and I thank VC readers for some helpful comments in improving it. The final version has been published by the Charleston Law Review, and is available on SSRN. Here’s the abstract:

This Article chronologically reviews the British gun control which precipitated the American Revolution: the 1774 import ban on firearms and gun powder; the 1774-75 confiscations of firearms and gun powder, from individuals and from local governments; and the use of violence to effectuate the confiscations. It was these events which changed a situation of rising political tension into a shooting war. Each of these British abuses provides insights into the scope of the modern Second Amendment.

From the events of 1774-75, we can discern that import restrictions or bans on firearms or ammunition are constitutionally suspect — at least if their purpose is to disarm the public, rather than for the normal purposes of import controls (e.g., raising tax revenue, or protecting domestic industry). We can discern that broad attempts to disarm the people of a town, or to render them defenseless, are anathema to the Second Amendment; such disarmament is what the British tried to impose, and what the Americans fought a war to ensure could never again happen in America. Similarly, gun licensing laws which have the purpose or effect of only allowing a minority of the people to keep and bear arms would be unconstitutional. Finally, we see that government violence, which should always be carefully constrained and controlled, should be especially discouraged when it is used to take firearms away from peaceable citizens. Use of the military for law enforcement is particularly odious to the principles upon which the American Revolution was based.

Readers interested in more detail on the role of gun rights and gun control in period leading up to the Revolution, and in the remainder of 18th century America, are encouraged to read Stephen Halbrook’s excellent book The Founders’ Second Amendment, which is the result of decades of work by Halbrook in finding primary sources of the period, including newspapers, correspondence, and diaries.

On a related topic, some readers might also be interested in my 2005 article The Religious Roots of the American Revolution and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, detailing the role of Congregationalist and other ministers in inciting the Revolution, by explaining collective self-defense of natural and civil rights as a moral and religious obligation.

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Liberty Quotes. Free new book

Posted by on May 07 2012 | History

Just published on-line by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, at Auburn University. Edited by Christopher Kalabus. Subtitled “Peace and Prosperity: A collection of historical, legal, and philosophical quotations.” Begins with Edward Abbey and Bruce Ackerman, and concludes with Aaron Zelman. In-between are quotes from VC writers Adler, Barnett, and Kopel.  Plenty of pro-right to arms quotes, for those who like that sort of thing.

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Cinco de Mayo: An all-American holiday

Posted by on May 07 2012 | guns, History

UCLA Professor David Hayes-Bautista explains the 1862 origins, an all-American holiday created by Mexican-Americans, who saw the Mexican victory against the French attempt to destroy Mexican democracy as another front in the Union’s battle against the Slave Power.

The Franco-Mexican war continued until 1867, and American firearms played an important role in the liberation of Mexico.  When the French occupied Mexico City,  Mexican President Benito Juárez set up a resistance movement in northern Mexico. There, he ordered 1,000 Winchester Model 1866 carbines in .44 caliber, to be delivered to Monterrey, along with 500 cartridges per gun. The Juárez forces paid $57,000 in silver coin. “R.M.” – for “Republic of Mexico” – was inscribed on the frames of the carbines. Today, “Juarez Winchesters” are very valuable collectors items.

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President Obama versus the Constitution

Posted by on Apr 02 2012 | congress, Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Constitutional Theory, Counter-Terrorism Policy, Executive Branch, federalism, Growth of Government, Habeas, Health Care, History, Individual Mandate, Jefferson, Judicial Power, obama, Presidency, Public Opinion, supreme court, Uncategorized, War on Terror

President Obama today fired his opening salvo in an unprecedented attack on the Constitution of the United States. Regarding the impending Supreme Court ruling on the health control law, the President said, “Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.”

His factual claims are false. His principle is a direct assault on the Constitution’s creation of an independent judicial branch as a check on constitutional violations by the other two branches.

It is certainly not “unprecedented” for the Court to overturn a law passed by “a democratically elected Congress.” The Court has done so 165 times, as of 2010. (See p. 201 of this Congressional Research Service report.)

President Obama can call legislation enacted by a vote of 219 to 212 a “strong” majority if he wishes. But there is nothing in the Constitution suggesting that a bill which garners the votes of 50.3% of the House of Representatives has such a “strong” majority that it therefore becomes exempt from judicial review. To the contrary, almost all of the 165 federal statutes which the Court has ruled unconstitutional had much larger majorities, most of them attracted votes from both Democrats and Republicans, and some of them were enacted nearly unanimously.

That the Supreme Court would declare as unconstitutional congressional “laws” which illegally violated the Constitution was one of the benefits of the Constitution, which the Constitution’s advocates used to help convince the People to ratify the Constitution. In Federalist 78, Alexander Hamilton explained why unconstitutional actions of Congress are not real laws, and why the judiciary has a duty to say so:

There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid. . . .

Nor does this conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.

Because Hamilton was the foremost “big government” advocate of his time, it is especially notable that he was a leading advocate for judicial review of whether any part of the federal government had exceeded its delegated powers.

Well before Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court recognized that the People had given the Court the inescapable duty of reviewing the constitutionality of statutes which came before the Court. The Court fulfilled this duty in cases such as Hylton v. U.S. (1796) (Is congressional tax on carriages a direct tax, and therefore illegal because it is not apportioned according to state population?); and Calder v. Bull (1798) (Is Connecticut change in inheritance laws an ex post facto law?). The Court found that the particular statutes in question did not violate the Constitution. (The ex post facto clause applies only to criminal laws; the carriage tax was an indirect tax, not a direct tax.) However, the Court’s authority to judge the statutes’ constitutionality was not disputed.

It would not be unfair to charge President Obama with hypocrisy given his strong complaints when the Court did not strike down the federal ban on partial birth abortions, and given his approval of the Supreme Court decision (Boumediene v. Bush) striking down a congressional statute restricting habeas corpus rights of Guantanamo detainees. (For the record, I think that the federal abortion ban should have been declared void as because it was not within Congress’s interstate commerce power, and that Boumediene was probably decided correctly, although I have not studied the issue sufficiently to have a solid opinion.) The federal ban on abortion, and the federal restriction on habeas corpus were each passed with more than a “strong” 50.3% majority of a democratically elected Congress.

As a politician complaining that a Supreme Court which should strike down laws he doesn’t like, while simultaneously asserting that a judicial decision against a law he does like is improperly “activist,” President Obama is no more hypocritical than many other Presidents. But in asserting that the actions of a “strong” majority of Congress are unreviewable, President Obama’s word are truly unprecedented. Certainly no President in the last 150 years has claimed asserted that a “strong” majority of Congress can exempt a statute from judicial review. President Lincoln’s First Inaugural criticized the Dred Scott majority for using a case between two private litigants for its over-reaching into a major national question, but Lincoln affirmed that the Court can, and should, provide a binding resolution to disputes between the parties before the Court. And in 2012, the government of the United States is one of the parties before the Court. (And the government is before the Court in part because the government filed a petition for a writ of certiorari to ask the Court to use its discretion to decide the case.)

Alone among the Presidents, Thomas Jefferson appears as a strong opponent of judicial review per se. Notably, he did not propose that Congress be the final judge of its own powers, especially when Congress intruded on matters which the Constitution had reserved to the States. Rather, Jefferson argued that in such a dispute the matter should be resolved by a Convention of the States, and the States would be make the final decision. Given that 28 States have already appeared as parties in court arguing that the individual mandate is unconstitutional, we can make a good guess about what a Convention would decide about the constitutionality of the health control law.

President Obama, however, wants Obamacare to be reviewable by no-one: not by the Supreme Court, not by the States.  You can find professors and partisans who have argued for such lawlessness, but for a President to do so is unprecedented.

The People gave Congress the enumerated power “To regulate Commerce . . . among the several States.” According to the Obama administration, this delegation of power also includes the power to compel commerce. Opponents contend that the power to regulate commerce does not include the far greater power to compel commerce, and that the individual mandate is therefore an ultra vires act by a deputy (Congress) in violation of the grant of power from the principal (the People). Seventy-two percent of the public, including a majority of Democrats, agrees that the mandate is unconstitutional. Few acts of Congress have ever had such sustained opposition of a supermajority of the American public.

President Obama today has considerably raised the stakes in Sebelius v. Florida. At issue now is not just the issue of whether Congress can commandeer the People and compel them to purchase the products of a particular oligopoly. At issue is whether the Court will bow to a President who denies they very legitimacy of judicial review of congressional statutes–or at least those that statutes which garnered the “strong” majority of 219 out of 435 Representatives.

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Free People, Free Markets: Principles of Liberty is BACK!

Posted by on Dec 20 2011 | Constitutional History, Constitutional Law, Constitutional Theory, Economic LIberties, Economics, Events, federalism, History, PPC, The Founders, U.S. Constitution

You may have heard about our Free People, Free Markets class, you may have even taken the course already. If not, I want to encourage you to learn more about something that is certain to enrich your life. Over the years, Free People, Free Markets: Principles of Liberty has taught hundreds of interested liberty lovers the fundamentals of economics, philosophy, and history regarding our country’s founding and economic foundations. If ever there was a time to deepen your love affair with liberty and freedom, THIS is it.

The class meets for 5 consecutive Saturdays, from 9am to noon, starting with the last Saturday in January, the 28th at Colorado Christian University’s business school, room 103 (8787 Alameda Ave, Lakewood). For more info, please call Andy Anderson at 303-829-9435.

Need more reasons why you should enrich your love of liberty? How about this:

You have a strong love of freedom. It’s a natural part of being human. But too few of today’s adults were taught the fundamentals of a free society. We have a wonderful seminar to offer you. It pulls together the basic principles of liberty and a free market, showing you that these cohesive fundamentals allow society to work well, and to honor the individual. The course material springs from the great thinkers and achievers who shaped America. It is designed for business and community leaders and the general public as well as for college students.

The course makes the moral and philosophic case for free-market capitalism. One of the most important concepts of Western Civilization is the acquisition of property as an unalienable right. The course develops the relationship between economic liberty and political liberty. Participants learn the principles behind wealth-creation. They are introduced to the philosophy of the Austrian School of Economics and its connection to the founding ideas of the American experiment. Participants are awakened to their heritage of economic liberty. It will be more than worth your time.

Classes held on five consecutive Saturdays. The course is designed for business and community leaders, college students, and the general public. If desired, you may obtain three college credits through the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs by paying the usual college per-credit fee.

Come if you love liberty. Come if you love collectivism, but need to understand the libertarian position. Come if you want to receive an inexpensive, thorough, and energetic exposure to the founding principles of economic and political liberty.

For more information about the course itself contact Penn Pfiffner at 303-233-7731 or constecon@hotmail.com. For more information about registering and any other matters contact CRBC at 303-829-9435 or principlescourse@smallbizgop.

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