It is said that crises make us appreciate life’s blessings. If that’s the case, we’ve been busy appreciating blessings while the scourge of COVID-19 threatens our health, disrupts our economy, and disturbs our lifestyles.
Like many of you, I’ve rekindled my appreciation for the U. S. Constitution and the men who framed it. Due to the compressed nature of decision-making over the past three months, we may be witnessing the workings of the Constitution in ways unprecedented in American history.
Convening in an era when international communication was a fraction of what it is today, the Framers could not have conceived of a fast-moving global pandemic nor predicted how government would respond. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention had, however, experienced despotism, war, and economic uncertainty. Hence, they were determined to equip Americans with an instrument for confronting national tests without sacrificing their preferences for liberty and limited government.
Their objective was not to recycle theories proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Theirs was a practical mission: to invent a system, a mechanism, a durable engine of state to absorb the contradictory demands of state authorities who sought the largesse and security of national government without its interference in their everyday operations. The outcome of their debates was a novel federal system, formulated in civilization’s greatest social contract and embodying the delegates’ aspirations “to form a more perfect union” without impairing state sovereignty or individual rights.
Read the record of their debates and we can hear ourselves debating coronavirus strategies. In Gov. Cuomo’s defense is James Madison and Edmund Randolph, both of whom respected the sovereignty of states but emphasized, nonetheless, the indispensability of central government in overcoming challenges that exceed the resources of an individual state.
When she endured the protests of rifle-toting populists opposed to her stay-at-home orders, Gov. Whitmer might have found comfort in the words of Elbridge Gerry, who, having witnessed an armed insurrection against the government of Massachusetts, warned of the dangers inherent to an “excess of democracy.”
By boasting that South Dakota isn’t New York, Gov. Noem echoed William Paterson, a stubborn spokesman for states’ rights, and George Mason, the national torchbearer for civil liberties.
Alexander Hamilton loathed the concept of states’ rights. He was, however, the champion of manufacturing and a free market and would shower Elon Musk with praise for opening his Tesla plant in defiance of California authorities.
How might the Framers evaluate the president’s performance? Picture James Wilson, foremost advocate for a vigorous chief executive, and his colleagues at a White House Coronavirus Task Force press conference. It is impossible to imagine these men tolerating the uncivil language and boorish, sometimes infantile behavior of President Donald J. Trump. They were honorable men, and though occasionally unrefined in their dress and manners, dignified in public. The Founding Fathers would be unimpressed with the unpresidential conduct of Mr. Trump.
On the other hand, the delegates would applaud the president’s effort to “provide for the common defence,” his empathy for small business owners and factory workers, and his criticisms of self-absorbed politicians whose perverse fixation on the 2016 election retards the “legislative Powers . . . vested in a Congress of the United States” by an electorate who chose Trump through legitimate means.
Moreover, the Framers would unite behind Trump’s position that, for better or worse, it is the responsibility of elected officials — not infectious disease specialists — to determine when “We the People” are ready to risk the reopening of our businesses, churches, and schools.
The Constitution withstood a civil war, a global war, a Great Depression, presidential impeachments, and two centuries of poisonous political partisanship. It now absorbs the shock of a pandemic whose economic impact will dwarf that of the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-19.
We’ve been entrusted with the most successful constitution in history, a marriage of an energetic and indissoluble national government with state governments whose loyalty to the Union is unshakable yet whose enthusiasm for local control is unquenchable. Appreciate its importance while imagining the Framers, once the bitter foes of the British Empire, appreciating the irony of a British prime minister, William Gladstone, declaring the Constitution “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”