This week we delved quickly into our unit on the Constitution, where we focused on a few main ideas, and lay the groundwork for what we will discuss next week:
- We sometimes have the idea that drafting the Constitution was simply a matter of getting on paper what everybody already thought. In reality, many of those present had strongly divergent ideas of what federal government should look like. Some wanted no executive at all, while others (like Alexander Hamilton) wanted a very strong executive elected for life. The federal judiciary seems almost an afterthought as did the Vice-Presidency, and so on.
- Compromise tended to be how the delegates operated, and many today praise the fact that they forged consensus amidst uncertain times, which usually give rise to fear and rigid dogmatism. But this process of compromise extended also to slavery with disastrous moral, and long-term political, effects. For better or worse, they decided that compromise for the sake of union (which they had already done with many other issues) on slavery was worthwhile. A variety of theories exists as to why this happened. Some argue that many believed that slavery would die out eventually on its own within a generation, and thus was not worth forcing some of the die-hards from South Carolina out of the nation entirely. Others state that slavery involved directly only private moral issues that best belonged outside the purview of federal power (some make the same argument regarding abortion today). Finally, some assert a simple exhaustion among the delegates. Having performed so many arduous climbs, the thought of ascending Everest proved too much for them. I enjoyed the students thoughts on the validity of their decision. This issue we will raise again next year as we move towards the Civil War.
- Despite their significant differences, delegates did share some basic principles, such as 1) The federal government did need strengthening, and 2) Federal power needed to avoid concentration in the hands of any particular branch, lest our liberties suffer danger, and 3) A fear of the ‘power of the people.’ While the Constitution did create a more democratic government that existed anywhere else in the West, it contains several barriers to translating the people’s desire into government action. We often complain of gridlock in government, but may not always realize that the Constitution seems tailor made to create it.
- For all its tremendous success, the Constitution did not foresee the quickly approaching era of a popular, national president that embodied the will of the people. This almost led to disaster in the election of 1800, as we will discuss in a few weeks.
People did not immediately embrace the Constitution. Patrick Henry read the first to the three words, “We the people,” and began his vehement objections. States, in Henry’s view, should be the basis of federal power. Henry may have been right or wrong about the wisdom of making “the people” the foundation of political power, but he certainly astutely recognize the difference. The Constitution created a new kind of America, one where national identity would trump local identity in the long run.
Henry also believed that the proposed national capital would in fact become a vast armory, one that would inevitably destroy liberties. In the strict literal sense, he was wrong about that. But he was right that the creation of a national, federal army would put a great deal of power in the hands of the national government. It is an odd and unsettling thought, but we should realize that the only thing preventing the military from taking over the government is that they don’t want to. Should the army desire to march on the Capitol, for example, the Capitol would fall in about 15 minutes.
We spent the bulk of our week on our 4th Amendment unit. I wanted to focus in on one particular aspect of the Constitution to help drill the down the implication of some of its core principles. The 4th Amendment, which reads
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This amendment has tremendous relevance for us today. Technology has changed the meaning of privacy, and our enemies have no qualms with using our system against us. The government has extraordinary powers at its disposal. Should privacy or security concerns take precedence?
- How private can public space be in the digital age? Do we have a right to privacy from Google or Facebook cameras if we walk down a public sidewalk?
- Can Facebook violate the 4th Amendment, which after all, only prohibits government from infringing on our liberties, and not the private sector?
- Europe has already done a lot to regulate the private sector in regard to digital privacy. Many civil libertarians, for example, would applaud the upholding of privacy concerns that Europe is pioneering. But, given the tremendous growth of technology, regulating these companies requires strong government interference. But — the same people who applaud the privacy are usually ones who do not want government regulation of the private sector. How should we resolve this paradox?
These are some of the questions we will examine at the end of next week.