America is in trouble. Perhaps the biggest peacetime trouble she has been in since our country was founded. The fundamental concept behind America is that all people are endowed by nature and by nature’s God with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure those rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Adherence to that simple idea freed Americans to propel this country to a level never before seen.
Why was America so successful? Because between the time from the Founding and the Great Depression most Americans enjoyed a degree of economic liberty that is almost unimaginable today. As historian Samuel Eliot Morison has observed, in most facets of life, government—especially the federal government—was almost invisible.
Freedom under law became compromised, though, when the federal government used the excuse of the Great Depression to break down constitutional limitations and greatly expand its reach. Government peacetime spending use to average around 5% of the economy. By 1960, just a few decades after the Depression ended, government was absorbing 25% of what had once been a free economy. Today it is absorbing nearly 45%.
A government founded to protect liberty has become an instrument for destroying liberty. For the past few decades, we have tried to cure it. We have sponsored programs of civic education. We have worked to elect good people to office. We have attempted to reclaim the Tenth Amendment. Sometimes we have gone to court. And we have had a few real successes.
But the few successes should not obscure one glaring truth: Over the long haul, we continue to lose the fundamental concept of America. In my view, we are losing because we have tied ourselves to a handful of losing tactics. We have become comfortable fighting losing battles. Let me give you a sobering historical example that may cast some light on what is in store for us if we do not adopt a new approach. More than 2000 years before our Constitution was written, another people located on what was then the outer edge of civilization established a free republic. They were only a small town in those days, but they were destined to become the greatest people in the world. Our own Founders looked to them for inspiration. Their system was based on principles of stoic virtue, respect for tradition, political accountability, military valor, and—to an extent unusual in the ancient world—human freedom. The Roman Republic lasted for 500 years, and its record still stands as the longest-lived major republic in the history of the planet.
Roman leaders faced the challenge of making this extended state work while preserving the essence of the Roman constitution. And slowly, over a period of nearly a century, their constitution deteriorated. Great statesmen like Marcus Cicero were aware of what was happening. But they failed to arrest the decline. They failed to arrest the decline because they tried to do so mostly by hitting the reset button until it wore out. In other words, they repeated over and over the same tactics that had failed before.
But nothing was inevitable about this. Rome could have preserved its free constitution by making the changes necessary to keep it healthy while there was still time. We Americans must not repeat their mistake. We must make the changes necessary to preserve freedom while there still is time.
Fortunately, we have the tools right at hand. They are our inheritance as Americans. Our Founders bequeathed them to us. They are lying right here, in Article V of our own Constitution. They are still fresh and new, and ready to use.
Article V is the Constitution’s provision for amendment. Today we think of constitutional amendment mostly as a way of responding to new conditions. The Founders recognized that purpose, but they also saw amendment as a way to prevent and correct government abuses. Because the Framers recognized that the federal government might abuse its power, in their early drafts of the Constitution all amendments would come solely from a convention of the states. It was only when Alexander Hamilton pointed out that Congress might have good amendment ideas as well, that the Framers decided to give Congress, as well as the states, power to propose amendments. But to prevent an abusive Congress from obstructing needed changes, the states also retained their authority to propose. Their vehicle for doing so was what the Constitution calls a “convention for proposing amendments.”
The Founders added the convention for proposing amendments to the Constitution precisely to correct the federal government if it ever became dysfunctional. They predicted that if Congress got out of line, Congress probably would not propose amendments to correct itself. And their prediction was on target. Because in the 224 years since Congress proposed the Bill of Rights, it has never—with the minor exception of repealing Prohibition—has never proposed an amendment that reduces its own power.
If we want to save America. . . if we want to save the fundamental concept of America .. . we need to use the tools the Founders themselves gave us.