The Constitution NYTs-Style

I’ll say it again. Everyone should get the Sunday NYTs, while you still can, for that special section on the U.S. Constitution (annotated by famed historians, politicians, etc.) It’s stunning. On the cover is an illustration of the head of George Washington above the fold, below is Donald Trump. (Seems more than an apropos quick-scan of first-to-last presidents if you know what I mean?) That opens into a double-truck, featuring a timeline of Constitutional milestones across the bottom of the pages and an incredible, lengthy essay written by American historian Gary Wills. Open that yet again and you have a vertical Constitution with annotations from people as vast as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley on Article I, Section I, Bernie Sanders on the First Amendment, Laurence Tribe on the Ninth Amendment and so forth. Without spoiling it for you too much with direct quotes, I’d like to give a rundown of the hits …

The main piece, “Child of the Enlightenment”, opens by proposing that the single, unique defining element of the U.S. Constitution is its secularism. Wills says that separated powers, federalism, an executive, bicameralism and an independent judiciary are all things theorized or already in practice elsewhere. And that America finds itself lucky to have a Constitution created between the two Great Awakenings, where religiosity ran wild.

He takes Sen. Mitch McConnell to task for being anti-Constitutional by robbing then President Barack Obama of a Supreme Court pick. He says McConnell clearly ran against the intent of the Constitution to isolate the court from every kind of direct vote, including the so-called “will of the people” (a fictional argument) pushed by the senator. (Before you begin to think of Wills as some lefty progressive, it helps to understand he was first hired at the age of 23 by William F. Buckley as a drama critic for the National Review.)

Wills thrashes Justice Antonin Scalia-style “originalism”, writing that Thomas Jefferson first supported punishments that fit the crime (like rape should result in castration), but later renounced that thought by the time of Constitutional ratification. In other words, no Founding Father would ever have supported the Constitution being frozen in time when it’s clear the document itself was created by men still in mid-arc of their own evolving opinions. In Wills’ words, “Should we consider a process that only recently had evolved to exclude castration as having reached its final goal?”

He also makes the argument that if we were indeed to follow “original intent”, then the Second Amendment would not be about an individual’s right to own guns, because that was never its intent. Gun ownership among the colonies was a given. It didn’t need an amendment. The language is “bear arms” — a military designation. The amendment doesn’t say “to own guns”. The Amendment was for state militia who feared the federal government may be too slow to react in an emergency (against Indians, the French, British) — but which largely meant slave insurrection in Southern states. Willis argues that the Second Amendment was primarily a function of protecting slaveholders.

Lastly, he quotes James Madison saying that the key to a good government is “virtue”. A virtuous people selecting good leaders. What both men mean is you get the government you deserve. If a minority of, let’s say, deplorables elect a bad leader, it isn’t the system that’s erred — it’s us. — DDR.

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