Constitution Day: What’s Been Lost

It’s a long way from that day in Philadephia in September 1787 when 39 white men (many slaveoweners) would sign the document that replaced the Articles of Confederation as the legally binding form of the new American government. But while many of the signers of the Constitution hailed it as a victory for preserving the Union, one of the greatest leaders of the American Revolution boycotted the Philadelphia convention, fearing that the newly proposed government would in the end become as oppresive as the British monarchy had been to American colonists.

Virginia’s Patrick Henry publicly and forcefully voiced his concerns about the proposed Constitution in June 1788. Henry was the first of the Founders to truly appreciate the potential of consolidating the armed forces under a central federal government:

A standing army we shall have also, to execute the execrable commands of tyranny: And how are you to punish them? Will you order them to be punished? Who shall obey these orders? Will your Mace-bearer be a match for a disciplined regiment?…Can the annals of mankind exhibit one single example, where rulers overcharged with power willingly let go the oppressed, though solicited and requested most earnestly?


If we admit this Consolidated Government it will be because we like a great splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things: When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.

Henry rightly feared what I have come to call “the cult of the Imperial American National Security State”: a centralized, highly militarized state that projects imperial power and ambitions abroad even as it seeks to more tightly control and mobilize its population at home. What Henry probably could never have conceived of was how easily the Congress would become such a willing instrument of that Cult–indeed, a primary component of the Cult. That reality was on full display last week when 300 House members voted to extend the government’s warrantless surveillance powers for another five years–despite ample evidence those powers have been repeatedly abused since the law went into effect in December 2008…just as similar abuses of government surveillance powers happened in the 1960s and ’70s.

The FISA Amendments Act effectively suspends the Fourth Amendment because it does away with the Constitutional “probable cause” standard for searches and seizures. And unless this law is struck down by the courts, Henry’s prediction of a government unaccountable to the people will, tragically, come to pass.


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