Art Callaham: Calculated complexity

May 19, 2013|By ART CALLAHAM

Lots of folks love to quote the Constitution. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The document outlines the structure of our central government and frames the principle of federalism.

Federalism is simply a political system that binds a group of states into a larger superior state while allowing them (the states) to maintain their own political identities. Federalism speaks to a common nationality and direct lines of communication between the citizens and all of the governments that serve them.

Our Constitution was adopted on Sept. 17, 1787, by a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and ratified by conventions in 11 of the original 13 states. It went into effect on March 4, 1789.

Our Constitution can be changed through an amendment process. The first 10 amendments, ratified by three-fourths of the states in 1791, are known as the Bill of Rights. The Constitution has been further amended 17 times (for a total of 27 amendments).

But did you know that our current Constitution is actually the second constitution under which our nation operated? The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first. The chief problem with that constitution was, in the words of George Washington, “no money and no way to get it.”

The United States or the confederation of individual states could print money but the money printed became worthless (“not worth a continental” was the common phrase of the time when talking about anything with no perceived value).

Under the articles, the new government (united in name only) proved inadequate in exercising the simplest of national sovereignty obligations. Individual states developed individual taxing structures, some paid taxes to the central government, some didn’t. Some states raised their own armies; some violated the articles of the Treaty of Paris (that treaty with England ending the Revolutionary War was signed by the central government and again by each individual state). There were no methods to enforce any treaty among the several states.

The central government’s Congress was paralyzed. It could do nothing significant without nine states agreeing, and some legislation required agreement from all 13. When a state produced only one member in attendance, its vote was not counted. If a state’s delegation were evenly divided, its vote could not be counted toward the nine-count requirement. The articles’ Congress virtually ceased trying to govern — sound familiar?

The vision of a “respectable nation” seemed to be fading in the eyes of revolutionaries such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Their dream of a republic, a nation without hereditary rulers, with power derived from the people in frequent elections, was in doubt.  That brought us to our current Constitution.

“The Constitution (U.S.) complicates power in a constructive manner;” that was a comment made by a participant in a recent high school “We the People” competition. Wow! A young mind linking complicated with constructive, the “yin and the yang,” opposites yet related and using our Constitution to prove the point.

Well, what’s so complicated about our Constitution? Eight Articles, 27 amendments, approximately 20-30 pages in length (according to type size); that’s it in summary. The Constitution is so uncomplicated that it’s been around for over 200 years with most rights expressed in the Constitution simple to understand.

Take the very uncomplicated individual right, outlined in the First Amendment — freedom of speech. As a U.S. citizen you have the right to say anything you want to say — wrong! Although the words “freedom of speech” are uncomplicated, the application of freedom of speech is very complicated, as well as constructive, when we define speech, slander, crudeness, obscenity, how speech may be harmful to others, and on and on — appropriate to the times.

For example, although you have the right to say the word “bomb” in a crowded airport terminal, you may be punished for that free speech because of the harm inflicted on others who panicked and were, say, knocked to the ground and injured.

I’m sure our Founding Fathers didn’t foresee air travel and crowded airports. Possibly, if they had they would have expanded the definition of freedom of speech to include “no bomb talk in airports.”

However, realizing the complicated nature of human existence, our founding fathers wrote an uncomplicated statement of freedoms knowing that as human existence moved forward the following generations would expand and expound on the uncomplicated concepts by constructing laws relevant to the times. That is why our Constitution is a living document — complicated and constructive at the same time. More … as time goes by.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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