Constitutional ignorance

Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.It’s been obvious for some time that the left does not like the Constitution, at least as a document that actually means something. The left likes the Constitution as a subject for eisegesis, in which they can find emanations and penumbras that confirm their own policy preferences.

What is fascinating is how the new House Republican majority has baited the left into coming out of the closet. The New York Times doesn’t want the Constitution read aloud:

In any case, it is a presumptuous and self-righteous act, suggesting that they alone understand the true meaning of a text that the founders wisely left open to generations of reinterpretation.

My goodness. To read aloud the rules that constrain the government is “presumptuous” and “self-righteous”. Wow.

Anyway, the Times’s real problem, I think, is not with Republicans thinking they alone understand the meaning of the Constitution, but with the very idea that it has a meaning. They don’t want it to have a true meaning. They want it to be an inkblot that they can subject to “generations of reinterpretation”. How else can they get from the power to regulate interstate commerce to the power to do anything they want, such as force people to buy a particular health insurance plan?

If the Constitution is just an inkblot, with no “true meaning”, then there’s really no reason to know anything about it, as the Times goes on to demonstrate in its very next sentence:

Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.

The left’s modern anti-Constitutionalists always make this point, and its historical ignorance is breathtaking. The Constitution never said that African-Americans were three-fifths of a person. It said that slaves were reckoned as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representation in the House. The abolitionists wanted the number to be zero, observing correctly that it was obscene that southern states would be credited with representatives for people they kept in bondage. The slave-holders, on the other hand, wanted slaves to be counted as full persons.

Today’s left is adopting the slave-holders’ platform. If they had had their way in 1787, the south would have had (even more) disproportionate representation in Congress, the cause of abolition would have been set back decades at least, and when the issue finally boiled over, we would not have had Abraham Lincoln to save the Union.

That’s what the New York Times is supporting. I prefer to assume it’s out of ignorance.

Constitutional ignorance is not limited to history, it also extends to the Constitution’s very text. (I suppose if the text doesn’t mean anything, there’s no reason to bother learning what it says.) A civics test administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that elected officials know less about the Constitution than ordinary citizens:

Those elected officials who took the test scored an average 5 percentage points lower than the national average (49 percent vs. 54 percent), with ordinary citizens outscoring these elected officials on each constitutional question. Examples:

  • Only 49 percent of elected officials could name all three branches of government, compared with 50 percent of the general public.
  • Only 46 percent knew that Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war — 54 percent of the general public knows that.
  • Just 15 percent answered correctly that the phrase “wall of separation” appears in Thomas Jefferson’s letters — not in the U.S. Constitution — compared with 19 percent of the general public.
  • And only 57 percent of those who’ve held elective office know what the Electoral College does, while 66 percent of the public got that answer right. (Of elected officials, 20 percent thought the Electoral College was a school for “training those aspiring for higher political office.”)

So here’s an idea: The left doesn’t want the Constitution read aloud? Fine. Instead of lecture, let’s have an exam. Anyone who can’t pass the test can’t take office.

(Via Patterico.)

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