Sunday, October 31, 2010

The activist Constitution

Yesterday, the lovely Diane and I watched Hubert H. Humphrey, The Art of the Possible, a terrific documentary on one of the most underrated figures of Twentieth-Century American politics. The close of the program is Humphrey explaining the inspiration he found in the Preamble to the Constitution. The opening words of the Preamble, "We the People," embodied for Humphrey the essence of American democracy: that all power and all sovereignty derive from the citizenry. That's a truth that's all to easy to overlook--a lesson for political leaders and would-be leaders of both Left and Right.

But what really affected me was the way that Humphrey proceeded to explain how the Preamble formed the basis of his view of the Constitution and, indeed, of the role of the federal government.

The Preamble reads:

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.

As Humphrey noted, each of the verbs is active: to "establish" Justice; justice does not spring up on its own. "Insure" domestic tranquility: we must act to assure a civil society. "Provide" for the common defense: we must make the efforts necessary to defend the nation. "Promote" the general welfare; it does not come automatically. "Secure" the blessings of liberty: we cannot simply expect that freedom will flower, we must work to make liberty real.

As the Preamble sets the tone for the Constitution that is the foundation of the United States government, Hubert Humphrey argued that it should set the tone for our politics as well. In doing so, he also refuted those who would take a cramped and narrow view of government's role.

(Your editor worked very, very hard as a volunteer for Humphrey's 1968 presidential campaign. Hubert Humphrey was a good and gentle man, but tough enough to come within a whisker of winning that year; indeed, had the Left turned out, he would have been President. I recall how I walked around in a near-stupor for days after the election, unable to believe that the American people had chosen moral midgets like Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew over men with the stature of Hubert Humphrey and his running mate, Edmund Muskie.)


Leanderthal said...

I share your pain, and I know that you are a well educated, thoughtful person who deserves no lecture from anyone, let alone me, about life.

So, I venture here to mention some things which I am sure you already know, and espouse them with the expectation that you yourself might endorse them, while all the same you find yourself, along with many others, like myself, needing to object to what we expect to happen in our America in the coming days. Our objections are a reality and a part of history as the events which are certain to unfold, one way or another, in the coming days.

Who are,"We the people"? Who are,"The American people"?

How are they, we, the same and how are they, we, different?

Who actually composed the words of the Preamble as proxies for,speaking for, "We the people"?

Who other than the American people voted for the "moral midgets, Nixon and Agnew" and will vote this coming Tuesday?

Sometimes I fear that there is truth to the axiom, "casting pearls before the swine", but that is the reality of democracy, the worst form of government, except foe all the others.

Reality has it that we will not live to see the outcome of all the events of our lifetime which will be recorded as history; that, as Desiderata advises, "No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should".

Does that fatalistic world view take us off the hook for doing our best to make this life a better place? I don't think so.

We are a part of this Universe, and without us, however small and seemingly insignificant we think we are when we wonder if our lives make any difference at all, the Universe actually doesn't exist without our presence and participation in it. Lest we rise to the temptation of finding this affirmation of our existence a heady thought, be sure to understand that all life forms and environments we perceive are just as much requisite existences as ourselves to the Universe we perceive.

Valuable Admonitions:

* Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.

*Be still, and know that I am God.

The Old New Englander said...

You said it; actually, it was Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. No one ever said that voters always make the right choice; the popular choice is simply more accurate than any other means of choosing leaders