Constitutional Basics

For the last couple of weeks I have been teaching a Citizenship in the Nation merit badge to the Boy Scouts in my LDS Stake.  Here are some of the fundamentals that we have talked about regarding the United States Constitution.

Nearly every boy in the three classes I taught raised his hand when I asked if his school teacher requires that he read so many pages per month on his own. "Why then," I ask, "don't you read the 39 pages of this little booklet containing the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as part of that assignment?"  Every boy in each class admitted to having read at least one book in his life that was longer than 39 pages.  The 39 pages of the booklet containing these two founding documents could well be 39 of the most important pages that they--or you--will ever read.

The Constitution is divided up into Articles and Sections.  These divisions can be roughly compared to the chapters and verses in the Bible or other scriptures. The Articles are identified by Roman numerals (i.e. I, II, III, IV), while the Sections are identified by the Arabic numerals that we use regularly today (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4).

The Preamble is a short paragraph (actually one long sentence) at the beginning of the Constitution, and it serves as the introduction and reasoning for why the Constitution is needed.

The first three articles of the Constitution deal with (I) the Legislature, or the Congress, (II) the Executive, or the President, and (III) the Judiciary, or the Supreme Court and other courts.  Article I clearly states that only the Legislature can make law.  When the President attempts to make law with an Executive Order, or when a Supreme Court decision attempts to make new law, these other two branches are clearly stepping beyond their Constitutional authority.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution lists approximately 18 things that the Legislative Branch (Congress) can make laws about.  Use the mnemonic I + 8 = 18 to remember these approximately 18 areas of authority. In essay number 45 of the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote that
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.
Amendments 9 and 10 in the Constitution's Bill of Rights (which comprises the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution) agree with James Madison's statement that the Federal Government should remain small because (a) since rights come from God as stated in the Declaration of Independence, government cannot take them away, and (b) any of the short list of authorities not granted to the federal government is left to the states or the people to decide.

To Amend something is to change it or to fix it.  The Constitution was inspired by God, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is perfect.  The very first 10 Amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were immediately required by some of the states before they would agree to ratify the Constitution. (The Bill of Rights was presented in Congress by James Madison at about the time the Constitution took effect and was separately ratified by the States about two years later.)

Whenever the government or the people feel that government should have a power that is not granted in the Constitution, the only way to bestow that power is by Amendment, as described in Article V.  The Amendment process is purposefully difficult.  As a result, in the last few decades, Congresses, Presidents, and the people have gotten lazy, thinking that Congress or even the president can make laws or policy--without Amendments--that clearly disagree with what the Constitution says.

The velocity of unconstitutional lawmaking seems to have taken off since 1913, when, ironically, two Amendments were ratified by the States:
  • Amendment XVI made it Constitutional for the federal government to levy an income tax
  • Amendment XVII removed the authority of appointing Senators from the State legislatures and instead required that they be elected in the same manner as members of the House of Representatives--by the peoople
I explained to the boys that in the Constitution the "Three-Fifths" clause essentially made it so that slaves only counted as 3/5 of a person.  "That sounds kind of racist doesn't it?" I asked.  "Uh-huh!!!"  They all agreed.  I explained, though, that, contrary to first impressions, the Three Fifths Clause was the opposite of racist.  It was a compromise that accelerated the demise of slavery as an American institution.  We talked about how the Census is used every ten years to count the numbers of people in each State in order to determine how many representatives each State gets in Congress. It was interesting to watch the light bulbs turn on in the boys' minds as they realized that if the slave states would have been able to count all of their slaves (who, by the way, were prohibited by their masters from voting), the slave states would have been much more likely able to perpetuate that most embarrassing blight on American history by having more representation in Congress.  That, along with the prohibition of importing any more slaves into the United States after 1808, helped gradually get rid of slavery in America.


  1. Have you told which constitutional amendment that HR 150 is going to be infringing upon?

  2. History is one of those tricky subjects to teach. If you provide only facts and dates and no understanding of the why or of the cultural setting then the subject is boring. On the other hand, there is a great temptation to teach not the actual history, but one's peculiar view of that history thus moving from teaching toward indoctrination.

    In your example, clearly you are more concerned that the scouts learn your view of the Constitution than in giving them sufficient information to form their own opinions. Let me state a couple of examples, starting with the baseless assertion that the Constitution was "inspired by God".

    It is impossible to prove that God did or did not inspire the writers of the Constitution as it is impossible to prove that a deity interested in such performing such an act exists. That is an article of religious faith, not a statement of fact about the Constitution. It tends to elevate this document to a holy status, something its authors clearly did not intend.

    That same assertion also interjects theological problems that you attempt to overcome with factual distortion. Would an omniscient Deity inspire men to not only tolerate the evil institution of slavery, but insure its continuation in the new republic by such measures as the 3/5 rule? Your fantasy about the 3/5 rule actually accelerating the demise of slavery is ridiculous on its face. Not only would a republic devoid of this rule have outlawed slavery decades earlier (say in 1808) without the deaths of 600,000 human beings, but a Constitution that did not give smaller (aka slave) states an inordinate share of power would never have permitted the continuation of involuntary servitude under the so-called Jim Crow laws for another hundred years. If indeed God inspired the Constitution, then you need to explain why he did such a poor job of it.

    I urge you to read more widely and simply provide the boys with the facts and some understanding of the environment in which the document was created rather than indoctrinating them in your rather fanciful views on the subject.

  3. Marshall: Do you mean de-infringing? Perhaps the one that says "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." (10th Amendment) ;-)

    Charles: To attempt to answer both your concerns (about whether the document is inspired, and about compromises such as the 3/5 clause) Here's an example--from one of the leaders of my church--that describes how the Founding Fathers themselves felt.
    As quoted in the article, Founders said such things as that it was "a miracle" and "approaching so near to perfection".

    Compromises were made, because, to quote Franklin: "When you assemble a number of men to have the advantage over their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views."

    I hope that helps you to better see my perspective.

  4. If the Founders thought their achievement was miraculous, that's understandable, but to move from that to the idea that the result of the labor was inspired by God is a leap of faith, and one with consequences for the way you view the document.

    I realize that the 3/5 rule was a compromise - one of several - designed to keep the southern slave states in the union. To assert that it "accelerated the demise of slavery" is ridiculous. It is exactly these compromises that carried within them the seeds of the Civil War and permitted the south to continue their denial of rights to black citizens well into the 20th century. Had the Founders avoided these compromises, they would have been able to outlaw slavery if not at the outset, certainly within a decade or two and without bloodshed.

  5. The reason I think the 3/5 clause accelerated the demise of slavery is because (hard to prove, but it makes sense to me) if they hadn't made such a compromise, there would now be two different countries in the place of one United States. And one of them (the South Country) would likely have perpetuated slavery a lot longer than what actually happened.

  6. Speculating about what course history might have taken is always fun, but it's ultimately unknowable. If the southern states had failed to ratify the Constitution, they would have been left adrift in a loose confederation, economically dependent on Britain. Would they have survived as a slave-owning separate nation after their primary trading partner renounced slavery? Would they have found the situation unsustainable and joined the union even without protection for their peculiar institution? Who knows. For one thing, the northern states left to their own devices would surely have outlawed slavery early in the 19th century and any slaves who escaped across the border into the US would not have been returned to their masters.

    What we do know is that the 3/5 rule and the other accommodations made to appease the slave states were responsible for the continued involuntary servitude of hundreds of thousands of people for over 70 years. We know that the Constitution's compromise with the evil of slavery kept black Americans in a condition of servitude for another 100 years after the bloody Civil War.

    The Constitution was a great achievement for its time and reflected the grand vision of the men who crafted it, but it is not a holy document nor is it flawless. The Constitution was never intended to endure for 200 years and become part of a national mythology. It was a means to an end and not an end in itself.


Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting. If you have a Google/Blogger account, to be apprised of ongoing comment activity on this article, please click the "Subscribe" link below.

Popular posts from this blog