The Name or the Thing?

“Political words of all others are the most indefinite, on account of the constant struggle of power to enlarge itself by tortured construction of terms.”
—John Taylor of Caroline

Clyde N. WilsonTo have spent the better part of a working life as a historian studying Americans of earlier times has been a privilege. It is also a sorrowful experience from the constant reminder that the trajectory of our political life has been ineluctably downward from the great promise of the Founding. Of course, in the current historical fashion this is no problem because one is not concerned with understanding our forebears, only with illustrating how much more wise and righteous we are than those benighted people.

One of the things that the Fathers understood that has been lost is that in government one should look at the thing itself, not at the name. The Chinese People’s Republic is hardly that. Britain is in form a constitutional monarchy, but it is in fact a republic, in which elected representatives hold the sovereign power. (Sovereignty, the final unappealable authority in a system, is something of a fiction but a useful one.)

The United States started as a republican confederation. Today’s politicians, pundits, and judges will doubtless be astounded to learn that until the great consolidation war of 1861-1865, “United States” was always followed by a plural verb—in every law, treaty, proclamation, public speech, and private writing, i.e., we were the States United. That “United States” is now an artificial and awkward singular tells us quite a bit about our history.

We now think of ourselves as a democracy—presumably a form of government in which “the people” are sovereign. But what if we look at the thing itself rather than the name? How can the people be sovereign when the federal government is at this very moment displacing them, against their will, with a population of Third World coolie labour? Ah yes, you say, but the Congress elected by the people makes the laws. Really? When the people’s elected representatives are afraid to cross the President about anything important and always leave controversial matters to be decided by the Supreme Court?

The Supreme Court is the final authority over every act of state and local government and essentially over every aspect of the life of the people. That sounds like sovereignty to me. About the only thing they don’t have final decision over besides the President’s warmaking, is money. The New York bankers, i.e., the Federal Reserve, have the power to increase or decrease the value of money, which is a form of control over every aspect of private property. Sounds like a sovereign power to me.

To stretch a point, perhaps, there is the mass media. The unknown, unelected owners decide what matters may and may not be discussed, and on the matters on which discussion is allowed, they decide what range of opinions may be heard.

None of these institutions is in the slightest degree responsible to “We, the people.”

I recently noticed something about the U.S. Constitution that surprised even an antiquated Jeffersonian like me. The actual true name which that instrument carries on its face is “Constitution FOR the United States of America.” Constitution FOR, it seems to me to suggest something more of States’ Rights than Constitution OF, which is all we hear now. It suggests to me that the proper term should not be “United States Constitution” but “United States’ Constitution.”

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