Constitution is matter of life and death
Sunday voices: Susan Bigler
Two Marines gave speeches on Memorial Day in two of our local observances — veterans paying tribute to their comrades in arms who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy the benefits of living in a great nation.
A nation that has been tested many times over its history, currently not least of all. During the Civil War, Lincoln dedicated the Gettysburg battlefield with the concern that “that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
We celebrate the birth of our nation on July 4, 1776, when the colonists declared independence from the British monarchy, but our government actually became a reality on March 4, 1789, when the U.S. Constitution took effect. Both marines, speaking separately at different ceremonies, had a common theme to their speeches — it was the Constitution.
We know that the years from 1776 till the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 were filled with the hard-fought battles of a budding army led by General Washington and many militia groups throughout the colonies. What occurred between 1781 and 1789 was also a hard-fought battle, one waged among colonial leadership to produce a basis for the new country on which to develop its governing. The fight was not against each other, but was one of cooperation, communication, and compromise toward a common goal, with democratic ideals guiding the way. It was by no means an easy task and they took their time to get it as right as possible. George Washington is quoted as recognizing the slow process of democracy. A democracy of “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Washington wrote to Lafayette in 1787, “It is to be regretted, I confess, that democratic states must always feel before they can see, it is this that makes their gov. slow, but the people will be right at last.” The Constitution is not an ideal document, it was predicated on the reality that it would succeed or fail to the extent that it had the approval of the governed — a democracy.
One Marine in his speech recalled his visit to Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the feeling of reverence and awe that overcame him as he imagined the discussion and discourse that was carried on, with the pounding of fists on tables to make important points; the engagement, the passion that drove our founders. The other focused on current events, and how we seem to have drifted away from the ideals of our founders and the principles they put into our Constitution, the civic drive that created it.
Both men took the same oath when they became Marines which is required of every member of our armed forces, that states in part “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic … I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” They took an oath to defend — not the country, not the president, not Washington, D.C., not our borders, but the Constitution — the rock on which our nation balances. Every government official pledges to uphold and defend the Constitution.
Their oaths are very similar to the oaths that our military take, with the exception of the president, whose oath is written into the Constitution, word for word, in Article II Section 1 clause 8: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The other oaths were composed because the Constitution requires that “they shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution.”
The oath is backed by legal punishment of removal from office, fines and imprisonment. In one sense, it appears that the Constitution gives more importance to the presidential oath by stating exactly what should be promised, but it is noticeable that “to the best of my ability” is not included in anyone else’s oath. It’s interesting to think about why the president should get this benefit of the doubt. Our military don’t get that. Maybe that helps them to be more clear-sighted on the importance of upholding the Constitution.
While on the one hand, our founders believed that most individuals who aspired to government office would have good intentions and perform to the best of their ability, on the other they believed that tyranny would be prevented only if a system was put into place to control it. John Adams’ insistence on a system of checks and balances led to adoption of three co-equal branches of government. Washington said, “I have seen so many instances of the rascality of mankind, that I am convinced that the only way to make them honest, is to prevent there being otherwise.” Suffice it to say, he would recognize a few “rascals” roaming about in his namesake capital city today.
Specific to the connection between the Constitution and the military, is what power it gives to which branch of government. Article I grants to Congress the power to declare war. The president derives the power to direct the military as Commander in Chief only after a congressional declaration of war, per Article II, Section 2. The president is authorized to act only in case of an emergency foreign attack, and rules involving congress subsequently apply. Power over the military was placed in the hands of congress because the 18th century colonists, being forced to fight under British regulars against the French and subjugated by the British military enforcing taxes, were fearful of a standing army in the hands of a monarch. As the Revolutionary War raged, a Continental army was formed. Independence won, the constitutional debate over a regular army began. The compromise was a small professional army backed by regulated state-authorized militia.
The second amendment reinforced the protection of the militia. The governing of these militias when in the service of the United States was given to Congress as part of Article I Section 8, to execute the laws of the union, supress insurrections and repel invasions.
The fear of our founders of putting too much power in the hands of one individual or group is as relevant as it could be right now. Article II controls the president, obligates the president to faithfully execute the laws personally and through appointed officers, and prevents the suspension of enforcement of any constitutionally supported law. Article II Section 2 Clause 5 demands that the president himself obey the laws, as upheld in the Supreme Court ruling Humphrey’s executor V. US. So, the president is not above the law. The president also cannot prevent a member of the executive branch from performing a duty lawfully imposed upon them by Congress. He can’t order them not to cooperate with congressional inquiry. Section 4 of Article II gives Congress the power to impeach for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” including obstruction of justice.
So far, 1.5 million Americans have given their lives for our Constitution, which still stands as the basis of our democracy. We are guided by the rule of its law, not by rulers. Two Marines on Memorial Day understand how important this is, and why all those men and women sacrificed to defend it, gave an oath to protect it, and “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain … and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Susan Bigler is a town of Sheridan resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org