Lysander Spooner and Parchment Barriers

Many people argue that the Constitution has failed. However, the problem is not the Constitution itself, but a failure of the people to enforce it.

The Constitution formed a union and authorized the formation of a  general government with very limited powers. The purpose of the Constitution was to create a more perfect union where the life, liberty and property of the people and the sovereignty of the states would remain forever secure.

The Constitution was written to govern the general government, not to govern or control the states and the people. The national government was delegated a short list of specific powers, mostly relating to war, peace and foreign relations. All powers not granted to the central government were reserved to the states and the people.

Many critics of the ratification feared that the Constitution gave the government too much power, and it would eventually enslave the people it was meant to protect. One of these critics was Lysander Spooner, who once opined, “The Constitution has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.”

But the operation of the federal government today bears little resemblance to the system established by the Constitution. The founding fathers intended to have a limited government that would be controlled by the states and the people. Not today’s monstrosity with nearly unlimited power.

The government was to be the servant of the states and the people, not their master. Spooner correctly identified the problem, but he missed the true cause. The Constitution has not failed us, we have just failed to defend it. As James Madison said, we can’t simply depend on “parchment barriers.

In his seminal commentaries on the Constitution, St. George Tucker, the most prominent legal mind of his time, reiterated this truth:

“All governments have a natural tendency towards an increase, and assumption of power; and the administration of the federal government, has too frequently demonstrated, that the people of America are not exempt from this vice in their constitution. We have seen that parchment chains are not sufficient to correct this unhappy propensity; they are, nevertheless, capable of producing the most salutary effects; for, when broken, they warn the people to change those perfidious agents, who dare to violate them.”

Constitutions are useless unless enforced. It’s up to we the people to ensure that they are.

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