The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency

September 17, Constitution Day, celebrates the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 by 55 delegates at the final meeting of the Constitutional Convention. It has served this nation for over 200 years and is the cornerstone of our liberty.

As the Honorable Jack Brooks, Chairman of the Committe on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives wrote in the foreword of the 1992 release of a pamphlet version of the Constitution:

The Constitution has served us well for over 200 years, but it will continue as a strong, vibrant, and vital foundation for freedom only so long as the American people remain dedicated to the basic principles on which it rests. Thus, as the United States sets a course into a third century of constitutional democracy, let us renew our commitment to, in the words of the Constitution’s Preamble, “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 . . .”

How dedicated are we to the basic principles on which it rests? Our students do not even know basic information about our founding documents, let alone the principles upon which they are built.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, in the survey, “Kansas High School Seniors 2006: The Status of Kansas Student Knowledge on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Kansas students answered a variety of questions about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Only 48% knew that the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident” came from the Declaration of Independence and only 46% could list three rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The results reflect a lack of concern on the part of students and our educational system for the basic principles of our form of government.

While perusing the National Archives web site for information, I found some interesting programming planned to commemorate this event, most notably a debate which is to take place Monday at the United States Navy Memorial, The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency. Several questions will be addressed by Judge Richard Posner, author of Not A Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency, and Judge Geoffrey R. Stone, author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.

How do we balance personal liberty against public safety in the face of grave national danger? Are there inevitable trade-offs, and, if so, when must we let the Constitution bend and when must we insist that it stand firm?

Are censorship measures justified in wartime that would not be justified in times of peace? Should “enemy combatants” be indefinitely detained without a hearing? Should executives be able to restrict civil liberties for reasons of national necessity, as President Lincoln did when he suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War? How can constitutional law best remain responsive to current events? — National Archives

There are inevitable trade-offs to anything, but we are either governed by the Constitution or we are governed by elected representatives who can follow or reject the Constitution as they see fit. Or, as it increasingly seems, we are governed by a bureacracy of appointed officials distant from either the will of the people or the restraint of the Constitution. I understand the need for national security, but our Constitution allows for the necessary functions of government in peace and in war while protecting the rights of its citizens.

One thought on “The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency

  • September 21, 2006 at 9:56 am

    Hard to say. We like to commemorate holidays with nice bulletin board displays. Some schools do a lot better than others, and from what I can tell, we have seen a steady decline in the teaching of the fundamental founding principles of our nation. At the time it was written, the Federalist Papers were read by the common person. Now they are rarely tackled even in college. I learned about them the same I learned about the Declaration of Independence and about the Constitution. I had to memorize the preamble to the Constitution and learn the Bill of Rights, but that is as much as I was required in my honors history course. Most of what I remember was symbolic in nature–I didn’t learn that much but a bunch of symbols of freedom, but never talked about what they really meant or what these documents contained (or what these men did).

    That’s purerly anecdotal, but supposedly I went to a pretty good school in IN, a state not known for being particularly lax in education (not like LA, anyway).

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