Kerby: How I learned to stop worrying and love James Madison

Steve Kerby, Staff Reporter

Constitutions, what are they good for?

They’re a heck of a lot of hassle, that’s for sure. The United States Constitution is the reason why the vote power of North Dakota is about three times that of California. The U.S. Constitution includes such historic controversies as the Three-Fifths Compromise, the First and Second Amendments and the amendments banning and then legalizing alcohol sales.  

Closer to home, constitutions of students organizations and clubs impose tedious meetings, burdensome procedure and generally clog up the works of getting things done quickly and efficiently. Life would be easier if we could quickly change things.

If we forget about the social controversy of the day, we might find that despite all the inconveniences of a rock-solid foundation of civic structure, despite all the gritty fights that they provoke, constitutions have more than enough merit to stand the test of time. Both the structure laid out by our Founding Fathers and the club constitutions inherited from the previous generations of students can philosophically ground the operation of an organization, provide continuity and certainty in times of swift change and precisely describe the mechanics of governance. Whether constitutional structure itself can survive these days of rapid advancement and cutthroat politics both on and off-campus is up to all of us.

A constitution can lay out the most basic tenets for future generations that weather the day-to-day social arguments that invariably break out. The U.S. Constitution enshrines several precepts, among them federalism, indirect democracy and checks and balances. We take these doctrines for granted, but many countries have no such stability, no such governmental norms. The genius of James Madison is not in his ability to predict social struggles. His genius was creating a formal constitution prescribing a civic philosophy and establishing a strong adherence to methodological tradition.

A reasonable objection to this arises when the injustices instated by the Founding Fathers are brought to light. They said that slaves counted as 60 percent of a person; they thought women should not vote. How can we praise their judgment when such glaring faults were purposefully neglected?  

While justified, this criticism misses the point; the Constitution allows amendments to free slaves (13th) and to grant women the right to vote (19th). It does not allow states to seize control of federal affairs or for legislation to deny states equal representation in the Senate. The U.S. Constitution is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for social issues, but it solidifies most procedural elements. The Founding Fathers did not attempt to solve all the social issues of the time. They probably knew that they could not legislate a diverse, energetic society into docility.

If the merit of constitutionalism is to strictly qualify procedures and methods, is this a worthy aim? If undertaken with pride and care, then yes. Constitutions should represent the very best civic thinking. In this way, a small student organization doesn’t have to lumber through tedious discussion meetings and delays to correct some grammatical errors or to update a long-since derelict section that is, for the most part, ignored. If written with pride and care, no trifling errors or forgotten sections should ever be present.  

Once again, my friend James Madison comes to the rescue, an example of the merits of procedure and cleanliness. The U.S. Constitution shows effective, precise, mechanical writing in procedural matters. Likewise, few sections truly fall derelict or are never referenced. Instead, American society simply takes them as a priori facts of governance. In this way, the strength of American constitutionalism is not in social predictivity but in methodological certainty.

Today, the idea of constitutionalism is under duress. At a national level, the founding precepts of the U.S. Constitution are not being maintained. Checks and balances are falling apart. The right to vote is under attack on multiple fronts.  

On our own campus, well-meaning and vigorous activism can develop into disregard for the orderly rules that promote deliberation and constancy. Discussion evolves into shouting matches, and vast changes are swept through without scrutiny. We stop taking pride in our civic duties.

I am not arguing in all cases against change. The U.S. Constitution has been altered dozens of times, mostly for the better, but the underlying mechanics of American government have remained the same. At our university, clubs should alter their constitutions to react to changing times and new club goals. To be guardians of constitutionalism, though, we must continue to take pride in civic duties. Imagine, though, if an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed without following the process detailed in Article V; the legitimacy of such an alteration would be totally unknown and the constitutional merit in question.

So I am not arguing for preserving every founding document in a pristine, unaltered condition. Better solutions always arise. But to disregard the mechanics of governance, to ignore the precepts of open debate, to rush through changes on a whim without oversight and diligence?

In a rush, one might even let a spelling mistake get through. How embarrassing.

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year student studying astronomy and physics. His favorite Founding Fathers are John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, in that order.