Guest Commentary by John Armor
From time to time, I return to my favorite subject, which I freely admit is a tad boring for most people. That subject is Constitutional Law. This time, George Washington made me do it.
An article in the New York Times on 27 April reported on the find of a previously unknown letter from George Washington in May, 1787, to Jacob Morris. It was contained in a scrapbook gathered by a 10-year-old girl in 1826, and was found among the trunks and boxes of her descendants’ gift of their mansion and its contents to the State of New Jersey, in 2007.
The letter is important for several reasons. First, it is a “new” document from the hand of Washington. Second, it makes a mysterious reference to General Horatio Gates. Certain Members of Congress wanted at one point to replace General Washington with Gates, as a result of Washington’s unending series of defeats prior to the Battle of Trenton.
For me, though, the value of this short letter lies in when and where it was written, and what it says about the Constitution. Washington was readily elected President of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, because all the factions present at that meeting respected him. And it was from that place and time that he sent this letter. Its second paragraph says,
“The happiness of this Country depend much upon the deliberations of the federal Convention which is now sitting. It, however, can only lay the foundation — the community at large must raise the edifice.”
Washington was a man of deeds, not words. He led by example. He spoke on the floor of the Convention only once, on its closing day. He favored the final amendment, to set the size of Congressional Districts at 30,000 people each rather than 40,000. His choice was followed, as it was with the decision not to limit the terms of the President to two. (That choice he’d expressed only privately.)
But when Washington did write, and speak, his vision was keen, and his words clear and precise. With 218 years of experience of living under the Constitution, we can see now that Washington’s statement was correct. The endurance of the Constitution does not depend solely on the excellence of its design, or the wisdom of the amendments made to date.
It is an excellent design. It has survived longer as a written constitution than those of any other nation in history. And with the exception of Prohibition, installed in the Constitution and later removed as a failure, the amendments have been successful. Other nations have lost their constitutions in military coups, or legal coups when they were redefined into dictatorships.
The key to the durability of the US Constitution is not found in the courts, or in any part of the federal government. It is found in the hearts and minds of all Americans. In 218 years it is we, not our government, who have “raised the edifice” of the Constitution. But sadly, in recent decades, it is we who are tearing that edifice down, again.
As George Washington warned in his Farewell Address, the Constitution “is sacredly obligatory upon all,” until and unless it is changed “by the authentic act of the whole people.” By that he meant it should be amended only by the people, as defined in Article V. It was not to be amended merely by the Courts, or Presidents, or Congresses, acting on their own hook.
Here is a one-question quiz, from which each of you can judge whether you are part of maintaining the Constitution, or bringing it down: If the Supreme Court hands down a decision that obeys the Constitution but is contrary to what you wanted in that case, will you support that decision?
That is a simple but telling question. Is the Constitution more important to you than the decision in any particular case? If you answered that first question “no,” it means you are willing to sacrifice the Constitution to win a specific, political point. And if too many Americans think that way, as George predicted in his letter long ago, the edifice of the Constitution is not long for this world.
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About the Author: John Armor practiced in the US Supreme Court for 33 years. John_Armor@aya.yale.edu He lives in the 11th District of North Carolina.
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