Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The Constitution is center stage for midterm elections

October 28, 2010 by Dr. Steve Frank


Yesterday was a big day for Publius 2.0. He celebrated the 223rd anniversary of the day in 1787, when Federalist 1 appeared in a New York newspaper. Happy birthday, Federalist Papers!

Maybe Publius 2.0 partied too hard. Today, the midterm elections hang over his head like a sobering cloud. As he reflects on the campaign, he’s amazed at how central the Constitution has been to this year’s contests, amazed and a little perplexed. It’s put him in an ironic mood.

The document that embodies a set of values that unites us as a people – our belief in such things as individual liberty, equality, limited government and the rule of law – seems only to have heightened our disagreements.

Publius 2.0 noted in an earlier post that Americans were born arguing. The bitter “invectives” and loud “declamations” that Alexander Hamilton said characterized the contest to ratify the Constitution have attached to constitutional arguments ever since. And when we argue over matters of principle, which is what constitutional arguments by definition are about, the area for agreement seems to narrow, not expand: You’re either with me on this, or you’re against me. It’s a matter of principle! You’re either my friend, or my foe. So the document that unites us, serves to push us apart.

The document that unites us, serves to push us apart.

Here’s another irony: While the Constitution embodies a set of unchanging principles, applying them in practice will forever be a matter of interpretation. The framers knew that the Constitution they created would change over time. They created a process of amendment expressly for that purpose. “That useful alterations will be suggested by experience, could not but be foreseen,” Madison wrote in Federalist 43. “It was requisite, therefore, that a mode for introducing them should be provided.”

It’s not just that the framers knew that their creation wasn’t perfect and that the kinks would have to be worked out. They made the Constitution amendable to keep it open to the future, a framework flexible enough to remain relevant in changing times to changing needs.

Which brings us to questions that have been much-discussed this election cycle: What’s the right size of government? How much federal power is too much? It’s tempting to think that we can simply pull a copy of the Constitution out of our pockets and point to the answer. But that’s not possible. It’s not even what the framers intended.

Discussing the power conferred by the Constitution on the national government, Madison said in Federalist 44 that it would have been impossible for the framers to list every power the government would need to do its job:

"Had the convention attempted a positive enumeration of the powers necessary and proper for carrying their other powers into effect, the attempt would have involved a complete digest of law on every subject to which the Constitution relates.”

And that list of powers, he continued, would have to have accommodated “not only the existing state of things,” but also “all the possible changes which futurity may produce.”

In other words, the Constitution was written with intentionally broad strokes. It leaves it to us to figure out how its words apply to our present circumstances. So here’s a question for today: Does any one group have a monopoly on what those words mean?


Sign up for our email newsletter