Monday, August 27, 2012

Evaluating the American Constitution: Introduction


Okay, enough with all the hypothetical theory. Let’s get down to business, and talk about an ACTUAL constitution, eh? Our first case study in real, live social contracts in action will be the American Constitution. This is partially because it is the oldest and longest running constitution in the history of the world, which makes it interesting to investigate what’s kept it alive for so long. It’s also partially because it was the first to really articulate many of the concepts I just described, so it’s a good application of my theories. It’s also partially because I carry a copy of it in my backpack and am very familiar with its contents, so it’s the one I’m most comfortable breaking down. But mostly, it’s because I’m an American who’s subject to it, and therefore because it’s the most applicable to me. Most of what I write on this blog in the future will involve American politics, so the American constitution is the most important one to understand for my purposes.

This is going to be a lengthy and detailed breakdown, so once again I’m going to break it into smaller, more readable parts. The basic format of this post will be organized according to the four levels of constitutional legitimacy I described here. First, I’ll discuss the purpose of the American constitution as it’s laid out in the preamble. Next, I’ll discuss how the framers gave the government power, touching on its specificity, concentration, distribution, adaptability, and limits. Thirdly, I’ll discuss the constitution’s mechanisms for creating law, and the public’s input in that system. And finally, I’ll reach an overall verdict on how close the framers came to the ideal social contract I outlined, and whether I think they were close enough for me to support the document as it now stands.

Because the constitution should be interpreted according to the original meaning of the text, it’s very important to ascertain what that meaning was at the time of its ratification. What the framers themselves said in their personal and public writings provides valuable insight to that matter, and helps to understand their intentions. For that reason, I will quote both the framers of the constitution and their intellectual contemporaries extensively in this piece. These quotes provide us with more than just words of wisdom from tremendously wise people; they also provide clarity on what the words in the constitution were understood to mean when written. Since this is the only meaning the people consented to upon ratification, it is the only meaning that can be legitimately applied. 

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