In talking to John Stossel, I mentioned an incident at the Virginia ratification convention in 1788, in the debate between Patrick Henry and James Madison. This debate is an amazing moment in constitutional history and it deserves more attention than it’s received. Historians often focus on the deliberations of the Philadelphia convention, but there was relatively strong consensus there—whereas at Richmond, Henry and his allies, who were some of the most respected names in Virginia and remain giants in American history, brought their considerable talents to bear in opposing the Constitution in toto. Madison—who was a very unimpressive speaker—was forced to rely on sheer force of argument in rebutting their inflammatory and intense arguments. After days of Henry trotting out the terrible dangers of the proposed Constitution, Madison finally came to the last of his many reasons for rejecting Henry’s allegations that Congress would do all sorts of terrible things. Madison had explained why checks and balances and limited powers and other features of the Constitution would limit the mischief that Congress might get up to. Henry, of course, kept saying that Congress might violate the law, which of course is irrefutable—political leaders who are disposed to do so could do any number of awful things. So Madison finally came to his last point:
I have observed, that gentlemen suppose, that the general legislature will do every mischief they possibly can, and that they will omit to do every thing good which they are authorised to do. If this were a reasonable supposition, their objections would be good. I consider it reasonable to conclude, that they will as readily do their duty, as deviate from it: Nor do I go on the grounds mentioned by gentlemen on the other side--that we are to place unlimited confidence in them, and expect nothing but the most exalted integrity and sublime virtue. But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks--no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. So that we do not depend on their virtue, or put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.
Madison made the same point in Federalist 55. The Constitution’s authors, he said, did not have an overly optimistic view of political leaders, or an unduly pessimistic view. After explaining again the many devices that the Constitution created to protect us against government abuse, he wrote,
[T]o suppose that [various government benefits] would be sufficient to purchase the guardians of the people, selected by the people themselves, is to renounce every rule by which events ought to be calculated, and to substitute an indiscriminate and unbounded jealousy, with which all reasoning must be vain. The sincere friends of liberty, who give themselves up to the extravagancies of this passion, are not aware of the injury they do their own cause. As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.
Alexis de Tocqueville sounded the same theme when he wrote that “in the constitutions of all nations, of whatever kind they may be, a certain point exists at which the legislator must have recourse to the good sense and the virtue of his fellow citizens. This point is nearer and more prominent in republics, while it is more remote and more carefully concealed in monarchies; but it always exists somewhere. There is no country in which everything can be provided for by the laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.”
Today, people often tell me they’re exasperated at the idea that the Constitution is a safeguard for our liberty, given how often it has been ignored or violated. And that’s a valid concern. But the Constitution is only words on paper—just like a contract, a map, a recipe, a deed, or the Bible. We can ignore what these words mean—but we cannot blame the words on paper for failing to protect us from ourselves. It is up to us to honor the Constitution’s meaning, and we have only ourselves to blame when we fall short. To paraphrase Auden, when we ignore it or dodge its meaning, that’s the way we’re punished by the Constitution.