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The Libertarian

Vin Suprynowicz

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Thanks to a 2004 law authored by U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., every American school and college that receives federal money must teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17 (the date the document was adopted, in 1787), or the closest school day available.

Needless to say, the edict has brought some whimpering. Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, told the Associated Press last year that such dictates interrupt regular lessons on other subjects.

(Gaia worship, perhaps? “Recycling IV”? “Multicultural Sensitivity”?)

“We don’t need the federal micromanagement,” he said. “Congress has been acting more like a school board. ... Local schools cover the Constitution, and they’ve been doing it for a long time.”

It would be nice to think so.

The problem is that old paintings of fellows in funny stockings and waistcoats make the Constitution seem a dry and dusty subject, of little concern in an era of DVDs and rocket ships.

Yet a government under the U.S. Constitution, to paraphrase columnist Joseph Sobran, would be a radical improvement over the one we have today.

The Constitution represents a great compromise. It erected a stronger central government than that which had prevailed under the Articles of Confederation, but it promised a skeptical nation -- one that has just spent a long and difficult decade throwing off the reins of King George --that the powers of that government would be sharply limited.

Delineating and thereby limiting the powers of the central government is, in fact, the main function of the founding document.

But while teaching kids the Constitution is an admirable goal, the very radical nature of the document raises questions as to whether the government schools as currently constituted are a reasonable choice to do the job.

While few critics of “central” and “strong” are to be found teaching public-school Civics classes these days, any discussion of the LIMITS on government power are likely to be short-circuited, today, with complaints that they’re “too political,” “too complicated,” or “not age-appropriate.”

Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University and author of the books “More Liberty Means Less Government” and “The State Against Blacks,” is a mighty defender of the Constitution -- yet declined to join the cheering section for Sen. Byrd’s holiday, last week.

“I cannot think of a piece of legislation that makes greater mockery of the Constitution,” professor Williams wrote in his weekly column, “or a more constitutionally odious person to father it -- Sen. Byrd, a person who is known as, and proudly wears the label, ‘King of Pork.’ ”

“The only reason that Constitution Day hasn’t become a laughingstock,” Professor Williams continued, “is because most Americans are totally ignorant of, or have contempt for, the letter and spirit of our Constitution.

“Let’s examine just a few statements by the framers to see just how much faith and allegiance today’s Americans give to the U.S. Constitution,” professor Williams suggests. “James Madison is the acknowledged father of the Constitution. In 1794, when Congress appropriated $15,000 for relief for French refugees who fled from insurrection in San Domingo (now Haiti) to Baltimore and Philadelphia, James Madison said disapprovingly, ‘I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.’

“Today, at least two-thirds of a $2.5 trillion federal budget is spent on ‘objects of benevolence.’ That includes Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid to higher education, farm and business subsidies, welfare, etc., ad nauseam. ...

“Constitutionally ignorant people might argue that the Constitution’s ‘general welfare’ clause justifies today’s actions by Congress,” Professor Williams submits. “Here’s what James Madison said: ‘If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.’ Thomas Jefferson echoed, in a letter to Pennsylvania Rep. Albert Gallatin, ‘Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.’ ”

It would be wonderful to see the U.S. Constitution taught in the public schools. I will believe such a course of education is underway when someone can show me a list of study questions being presented to today’s students, including:

* Article I Section 8 grants to Congress alone the power “to declare war.” Did President Bush seek and declare a congressional “Declaration of War” against Iraq? If not, did he violate the Constitution when he sent troops to attack that nation?

* Article I Section 8 says the Congress can exercise “exclusive Legislation in all cases” over the District of Columbia, and may “exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the legislature of the state in which the same shall be ...” May it exercise such exclusive authority over Yucca Mountain -- building a nuclear waste dump there without state permission, for example -- even though it can show no bill of sale, nor written consent of the Nevada Legislature to allow it purchase that land? Where in the Constitution does that authority arise?

* Article I Section 10 says “No state shall ... make any thing but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts.” What was the founders’ experience with fiat paper currency that led to the insertion of that clause? Does the widespread acceptance of “federal reserve notes,” not convertible into gold and silver, violate this provision? Why or why not?

* The Second Amendment says the right of the people to keep and bear arms “shall not be infringed.” Do background checks, waiting periods, $200 taxes, and requirements that a machine-gun purchase be approved by your local chief of police constitute “infringements” of these rights? Where in the Constitution are such restrictions authorized?

* The Fourth Amendment says a house cannot be searched without a warrant “particularly describing ... the person or things to be seized.” Yet police routinely seize firearms found during searches, even when no firearms are specifically listed on the search warrant. Is this constitutional? Can the courts waive such restrictions without going through the amendment process stipulated in Article V?

* A constitutional amendment (the 18th, since repealed) was required to outlaw alcohol nationwide. When was the constitutional amendment ratified which authorizes the similar outlawing of marijuana, cocaine, and opium? What is its number?

* The 13th amendment says “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Are compulsory schooling or military conscription consistent with this provision?

Not so dry and dusty, any more, is it? Better to stick with condemning the founding fathers as slave-owning misogynists, perhaps. Surely Sen. Byrd did not intend that the children should be encouraged to ask so many inconvenient questions. And at such a tender age.

Mind you, no age is too young to start propagandizing them towards socialism. (All the privately purchased school supplies being pooled, anyone?) But not THIS stuff! Heavens!

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