Thursday, June 13, 2013 – Essay #84 – What Good’s a Constitution? by Winston Churchill – Guest Essayist: Troy Kickler, Ph.D., Founding Director, North Carolina History Project and editor of www.northcarolinahistory.org
It seems today that many Americans wrongly perceive the Constitution as a roadblock on the way to a better America. Not too long ago during a dinner conversation, this unfavorable view of the Constitution was expressed to me. The person had overlooked the enduring qualities of the document–qualities that have allowed freedom to flourish and have kept tyranny in check.
In “What Good’s A Constitution,” former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill reminds readers that the American Constitution has been the “shield of the common man,” and its framework and provisions reveal that a government exists for individuals. Individuals do not exist for the government. Churchill wrote the 1936 article in an era in which Fascist dictatorships had emerged in Italy and Germany and Russia’s Communist experiment had been underway for almost two decades. Churchill was speculating why such despotic trends occurred in those nations and not in Great Britain or the United States.
According to Churchill, war is “destructive to liberty.” Wartime demands for security and order can often temporarily encroach on individual liberties. The Prime Minister describes this process as “the evils of war.”
The real danger, notes Churchill, is when a war environment is created during times of peace. This occurs especially when indicators of the national economy are continually dipping, and citizens are suffering from high unemployment and inflation. People want answers and hope for the best. Tyrannical leaders understand this national frame of mind, so they heighten the public’s passionate discontent and take advantage of a patriotic people looking for answers and willing to submit to more authority.
The Third Reich, for instance, heightened the passions of Germans during a time of economic depression and fostered a sense of urgency that enabled Germans to overlook, to bypass, their Weimar Constitution. The whole process facilitated Adolph Hitler’s rise to power.
Churchill notices that a centralizing approach, to a much lesser degree, was attempted in the United States during the 1930s, a decade that included the Great Depression. When describing the situation in America, he writes, “There have been efforts to exalt the power of the central government and to limit the rights of the individuals.” Freedom survived mostly intact in America, however.
During the tumultuous decades of the 1930s and 1940s, the United States and Great Britain, according to Churchill, were “at the forefront of civilized states.” The watchful eye of the general public had been alert to encroachments on individual liberties, and both nations, generally speaking, adhered to established laws and allowed for citizens to criticize the government. In both, an independent judiciary existed, and judges were aware that they were to interpret the law and not to do a leader’s bidding.
America’s and Great Britain’s constitutional systems are different–the former has a written constitution, and the latter has an unwritten one based on common law and political tradition that has emerged in a stable polity. In Great Britain, a respect for constitutional authority and checks and balances within government emerged out of the Glorious Revolution. Although Churchill explains the differences in the two constitutional systems, and prefers his nation’s version, he respects the American Constitution as a protector of freedom.
The American Constitution is more “rigid.” For instance, two-thirds of a majority of the states are needed to revise it, in any way. This is a time-consuming and difficult process that rarely occurs. It can not be changed on the whim of a public majority. Churchill writes the founding fathers knew the importance of a written Constitution, for the U.S. was created out of a set of diverse people with regional interests. The opinion of the majority of Americans would not necessarily represent, as Churchill puts it, “so diverse a community” as the United States. The game of politics needed a rulebook, and the Constitution became that rulebook.
Churchill questions those who denounce the “rigid” American Constitution. Instead of preventing progress, he writes, the document has allowed freedom to flourish. A permanent, fixed Constitution prevents, the Prime Minister writes, “new gigantic accessions of power to the dominating centre of government.” It also prevents more and more government intervention into individuals’ lives.
Everyone, from the ordinary citizen to political leaders and legal scholars and jurists, Churchill urges, should have knowledge of the Constitution. Indeed, the American founding fathers believed it an American’s duty to return to “first principles.” All that is new is not wise, they believed, and the ages can provide wisdom for modern times. It is then our duty to return to the first principles of the United States of America, for in doing so, we will understand how the “great instrument of government” has “presided over [Americans’] expanding fortunes.”
So, what good is a Constitution? It provides a rule of law, a rulebook for the game of American politics. It also allows for freedom to flourish, and the Constitution ensures that Americans do not exist for the government. And, furthermore, it reveals that Americans enumerated certain powers to the government, and as Churchill reminds us, government exists for Americans so that their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may be preserved in individuals’ homes and families.
Read What Good’s a Constitution? by Winston Churchill here: http://www.constitutingamerica.org/blog/?p=4363