Visiting UAA on Constitution Day

Professor João Carlos Espada from Portugal gives the 13th Annual Constitution Day Lecture at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

It was a privilege to attend tonight’s Constitution Day Lecture, kicking off the Chartwell Lecture series at UAA. Professor Espada’s perspective on the French Revolution in contrast to the American Revolution is a profound one. In his younger years, he and his wife both took an active part in the Carnation Revolution, which brought democracy to his native country of Portugal.

His talk contrasted the writings of Rousseau, which strongly influenced the French Revolution, with the writings of James Madison, who fought in the American Revolution and would later come to be known as the “Father” of the United States Constitution for his role in bringing it into existance.

Rousseau’s call for a Utopian vision of government led his country to civil war, an exceedingly bloody revolution, and eventually to an emperor, Napoléon Bonaparte.

In contrast, America’s Founding Fathers had no desire to create a Utopian society. A better society, yes, but they utterly rejected the notion that it was humanly possible to create a perfect nation.

The Declaration of Independence made clear to the entire world that governments can become destructive of the very purpose for which they were formed. Likewise, no more than a dozen words into a reading of the Constitution, you find the idea of a perfect union of states explicitly denied.

The United States Constitution was the fruit of an attempt by the American people to “form a more perfect Union”. That attempt, though ambitious at the time, was also infinitely more humble than the Utopian vision of Rousseau.

Recognizing that a perfect union of states would forever be unattainable, the Founders permanently enshrined within the Constitution the ability for sober reflection that could produce changes, not just to laws and policies, but even to the nation’s most foundational document, the Constitution itself, on which the entire federal government was to be established.

In order to ensure that sober reflection accompanied any changes to that document, a series of checks were put in place. Any amendment would have to first be supported either by two-thirds of each house of Congress or by two-thirds of the states. After securing that support, it would then need to be approved by fully three-quarters of the states. Only after surmounting both of these hurdles could a change be made to the Constitution.

As Madison would later write:

“It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.”

Those who would shortcut the amendment process laid out in the Constitution undermine not only the Constitution, but also the knowledge and confidence of the people that their consent must be obtained before any permanent changes are made to it. Perhaps even more importantly, pursuing changes outside of the amendment process means that the sober reflection of the nation is no longer required before changes are made.

The U.S. Constitution is a truly brilliant document. Today, even 230 years after the Constitutional Convention, it still puts the constitutions of all other nations to shame.

But, if it is to be more than just a document, if it is to consistently protect the rights of the American people, it must be followed. If it is not consistently followed, no future changes to the Constitution itself can arrest the tendency of lawyers, judges and politicians to set aside constitutional provisions when the Constitution itself becomes an obstacle to their own private ambition.

Support your Constitution—Insist that your elected officials honor their oath to defend it.