Wednesday, March 24, 2010

TEA TALK

Henry Walls told me you wanted me to talk about the Constitution.

The United States Constitution was written in 1787.

In 1787 the original 13 states had a population of about four million people. Less than a quarter of the present state of Florida.

President Obama can get from New York to Los Angeles and back again in the time it took George Washington to get from New York to Philadelphia.

If Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Alexander Hamilton, it took two weeks to get to him. Today we have instant messaging.

In 1787 there were no telephones, no electricity, no air conditioning. George Washington had false teeth made out of wood. Doctors tried to cure pneumonia and tuberculosis by draining blood out of their patients. Women didn’t vote and black people were still being bought and sold.

The world has changed in 223 years.

The Constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 is a truly marvelous document. It launched a federal republic that was intended to be permanent. It is the charter of our nation; the compact between the people of the states and their government.

It was meant to last, but it wasn’t meant to be static.

We know it was meant to last because the founding fathers designed the constitution to change; to keep up with the times.

They knew nothing about computers or atomic bombs. They had no automobiles, much less airplanes, and rocket ships.

But they did know that change would come. They did know about the corruption of power and the dangers of partisanship.

They did know about the weakness of human nature and the temptations of self interest.

They did know that the constitution would have to be amended.

Not just once, not just ten times. But over and over. In many ways that they could not foresee. In ways that only experience would teach their successors.

That's why they wrote Article Five of the Constitution of the United States.

Article Five provides two ways to amend the Constitution.

First, the Congress can propose an amendment by a two thirds vote in both houses. That has been done successfully 27 times.

The second way is for two thirds of the state legislatures to request a convention to propose amendments. In that case, the constitution requires the Congress to call a convention. That has never been done, despite the fact that every state in the union has requested a convention.

Either way, an amendment must be ratified by three fourths of the states before it becomes part of the constitution.

Not a lot of Americans know what Article V says or understand what it means.

Like many parts of the constitution, Article Five was a compromise.

Some delegates, including Alexander Hamilton, wanted to simply let the Congress propose amendments and the states ratify them.

But George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, argued that members of Congress would never propose amendments which might limit their own powers or benefits, and he convinced the Founders to provide for the Article Five convention as the only effective way for the people of the states to combat an oppressive, run away federal government.

Twenty-seven years ago, I wrote a law review article entitled “Return to Philadelphia.” It was a call for a convention to propose amendments to our constitution. I brought a few copies along with me tonight for those of you who may be interested.

I reread that article against the background of where America stands in 2010, and I am even more convinced that an Article V convention is the only way the American people can take their country back from the politicians and lobbyists and media moguls who are running this nation into the ground.

It’s the only way to change the way things work in Washington.

But it isn’t going to be easy.

When Delegate George Mason predicted that the Congress would oppose needed reforms, he knew what he was talking about.

In the 223 years of our Republic there have been 750 petitions from the state legislatures for an amendatory convention. Every state in the union has asked for a convention, more than once.

But the Congress simply ignores them. They haven’t even bothered to count them or to put them someplace where they can be seen.

It wasn’t until last year, when a group called Friends of the Article V Convention hired researchers to comb through the Congressional archives that anybody really knew how many petitions have been filed.

And ignored by the Congress.

People ask me, “How are you going to get the Congress to call a convention? If they have been ignoring state petitions for 223 years, how do you expect to get their attention?”

My answer is very simple: ‘I think it’s time for a tea party.”

Nine days before Christmas in 1773, nearly 7,000 noisy people gathered on the waterfront of Boston Harbor to protest the duty imposed on the importation of tea by the British Parliament.

To get their point across, those angry folks boarded three British ships and dumped their cargos of tea into the water.

The Boston Tea Party led to the organization of the Continental Congress; the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation and finally, just fourteen years after the Boston Harbor was turned into a giant tea pot, the Constitution of the United States was adopted and the greatest nation of the face of the earth was born.

You folks have gathered here tonight because you are part of another Tea Party.

People like yourselves, all over America, are coming together, and they want to be heard.

Ordinary folks. Many of whom – most of whom --have never been involved in politics or government.

They listen to the radio, they watch the television, they read blogs and web sites and countless emails and videos buzzing around the Internet.

They talk to friends and neighbors, and they are worried.

They wonder what’s happening to America, what’s happening to our country.

They try to understand what a trillion dollars means.
And three trillion and ten trillion.

Two years ago, we heard a new slogan: “Change we can Believe In.”

Barrack Obama was elected in 2008 because he represented change. He promised America a new era; it was to be post racial; post political. Our troops in Iraq would come home. The divisions and the stalemates, the petty politics of the past, were to be set aside. It was to be a time of hope.

Thousands of people chanting “Yes, we can” believed they were welcoming a new dawn of empowerment, a new day of accountable, transparent government.

For those of us who remember the 1960’s and the booming voice of Martin Luther King chanting his litany of aspirations for his people, the election of a president of African descent in 2008 reverberated with the echoing phrase. “I have a dream.”

But dreams have a way of dissipating with the dawn and the yawn of a new day. President Obama is still popular, still charismatic, and his election is still of historic significance.

But the American people are still hoping and still crying out for change; change to believe in; change that really makes a difference in what goes on in Washington DC; change that renews their confidence and pride in our nation.

The silent majority is speaking up all across the country.

From home grown tea parties in city after city, to town hall forums, to a massive protest march on the nation’s capital.

We are a war weary, bankrupt nation, overrun with illegal immigration, drowning in consumer credit default. Our neighborhoods are haunted by empty houses and mortgage foreclosures, our Congressmen refuse even to read the legislation they want us to accept on faith, too many of our people are unemployed; too many are disillusioned, too many are disgusted and discouraged.

And, unfortunately, too many also expect the federal government to subsidize the economy, bolster the banks, bail out the automakers, and pay all the doctor bills.

In December of 1955, I was a Republican candidate for the United States Congress. I was defeated by a young man who was elected to succeed his father in the 15th District of Michigan.

That young man’s name was John Dingell. Today, 55 years later, he is the longest serving Congressman in the history of the United States of America.

His district has been drawn and redrawn every ten years. Today, it’s about twenty miles down the Detroit River from where it was when he was first elected.

Politicians know how to play the game of politics.

That’s why ninety percent of the incumbents are reelected.

What we have to do, my friends, what you and I have to do, is to change the rules of the game.

And that means we have to amend the constitution.

Some people gasp with horror at the thought that anyone would tamper with the precious document written by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

That’s not the way the founding fathers saw it.

Thomas Jefferson warned us that the constitution isn’t some sacred covenant that can’t be touched. The Founders were good men, but they expected their work to be changed, and improved down through the years.

What kinds of amendments would a convention propose?

How about congressional term limits?
And limiting presidential war powers?
And requiring a balanced budget?
And limiting the federal debt?

The list goes on. Popular election of the President. A system of presidential primaries. Non partisan nominations to the Supreme Court, and age or term limits for the justices.

A group of professors at Yale University recently published a book entitled “The Constitution in 2020.”

They see all kinds of change in our constitution in the next ten years, but they don’t talk about Article Five.

Like many constitutional scholars, they agree with Charles Evans Hughes who said, “The Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.”

And Felix Frankfurter, who told law students, “The Supreme Court is the Constitution.”

Personally, I prefer the view of Judge Thomas M. Cooley who said, “A constitution is not to be made to mean one thing at one time and another at some subsequent time when the circumstances may have so changed as perhaps to make a different rule in the case seem desirable.”

Alexander Hamilton agreed. He reminded us that the constitution can only be changed by a solemn, official action of the people, and that public officials can’t ignore the constitution just because they think that’s what the public wants.

I hear law professors say that getting three fourths of the states to agree to amendments is too difficult. And so they want the Supreme Court to bury the constitution under a mountain of interpretations that they call constitutional law.

I don’t buy it.

Article VI of the constitution requires every public official to take an oath to support “this constitution.”

It’s not an oath to obey the United States Supreme Court.

The law professors talk about the constitution as a living document. They say it is constantly evolving to reflect community standards.

My friends, that is sheer nonsense.

The constitution is a living document because it contains within its 4,608 words, the means for its own amendment.

It is a living document because it gives the people of the United States the right to demand a convention to propose amendments.

And I’m telling you here tonight that an Article V convention is long overdue.

But because Congress must call the convention, and because Congress fears the convention, Congress will drag its feet and try to find every conceivable excuse to refuse to act.

Only an aroused citizenry can make it happen.

There’s a lot of anger in America today.

A lot of people feel like Howard Beale in the movie, Network. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.

But shaking our fists at the sky and calling people names isn’t going to fix anything.

I’m sure that over the next several months a lot of candidates for public office will come by and want to speak to you folks.

They’ll want to talk about deficit spending and health care and bailouts and all the rest of the hot button issues of the day.

They won’t want to talk about amending our federal constitution. That’s not an issue that’s on the front page or on the TV.

But do yourselves and your grandchildren a favor.

Ask those candidates where they stand on the issue of an Article V convention.

Make them stand and be counted for it or against it. And make them give their reasons.

What we need in America today is statesmanship.

A rebirth of intelligent, rational discussion and honest debate.

A renewal of interest in and appreciation for the charter of our liberty and the compact that we the people made with our government over two centuries ago.

Our Constitution is a living document. It is intended to be permanent. It has within its own four corners the means to renew itself, to grow, to adjust, to change.

But we have to love it with all of our hearts. We have to take care of it. We have to write the checks and make the sacrifices, and work for the amendments that will help our constitution withstand the conniving and the twisting and the sheer indifference of the people who are in power.

Their attitude seems to be that they are the rulers, that the Constitution is theirs, that they own it.

But they don’t own it.

The Constitution belongs to all the people. Not just the Founding Fathers who wrote it in Philadelphia, not just the thirteen colonies that ratified it, not even just the millions of Americans who have loved it, and sworn to uphold it and died to defend it.

It belongs to you and to me. To the people of Pasco County. To the folks in Dade City. To the kids in our schools and old people in our neighborhoods.

It belongs to all of us. Not to the Supreme Court. Not to the law professors at Harvard and Yale, not to the Congressmen and Senators or the President of the United States. Or NBC, or CBS or Fox News.

When Benjamin Franklin walked out of Convention Hall in 1787, a woman asked him what sort of government we will have. He answered, “ A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Thomas Jefferson thought we ought to have a convention every 19 years to keep our constitution up to date.

We haven’t done it.

We have failed Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Franklin. We’ve failed Mr. Washington and Mr. Madison and Mr. Adams.

The Constitution of the United States is the charter of our national government.

We, the people of every state, have the right and the high duty to amend it, to update it, to fix it, to make it work the way we know it can and should work.

We have a right to a convention, and if you folks and all the other tea party people who want change they can believe in will stand up and speak up, we shall have it.

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