Applied History

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

All too rarely, you learn something new from a professor that shows you just how much of America’s past most pedagogues fail to digest or pass on, that is, when they can even bring themselves to acknowledge American history in the first place. “Most school kids are left with the impression that the U. S. Constitution was the inevitable follow-up to the Declaration of Independence and the war with King George,” Gary M. Galles writes in The Free Market.

Dr. Galles may be too optimistic about American education. My stepson had a high school course in which he had to create his own constitution. I suggested that he cut and paste the original and see if anybody noticed. He wisely ignored my advice and got a B in the course.

“What they miss out on is the exciting debate that took place after the war and before the Constitution, a debate that concerned the dangers of creating a federal government at all,” Dr. Galles explains in The Free Market of the largely untaught history of what went on between 1776 and 1787.

The Free Market is a monthly newsletter published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Dr. Galles is an economist at Pepperdine.

“Antifederalists opposed the Constitution on the grounds that its checks on federal power would be undermined by expansive interpretations of promoting the ‘general welfare’ (which would be claimed for every law) and the ‘all laws necessary and proper’ clause (which would be used to override limits on delegated federal powers) creating a federal government with unwarranted and undelegated powers that were bound to be abused,” Dr. Galles writes. “One could quibble with the mechanisms the Antifederalists predicted would lead to constitutional tyranny.”

“For instance, they did not see that the Commerce Clause would come to be called ‘the everything clause’ in law schools, justifying almost any conceivable federal intervention—because the necessary distortion of its meaning was so great even Antifederalists couldn’t imagine the government would get away with it.”

The most prophetic of these “antifederalists” may have been New York Judge Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He wrote under the pen name “Brutus.”

“Brutus argued that when constitutional grounds for making rulings were absent, the Court would create grounds ‘by their own decisions,’” Dr. Galles relates. “He thought that the power it would command would be so irresistible that the judiciary would use it to make law, manipulating the meanings of arguably vague clauses to justify it.”

“The Supreme Court would interpret the Constitution according to its alleged ‘spirit’ rather than being restricted to just the ‘letter’ of its written words (as the doctrine of enumerated rights, spelled out in the 10th Amendment would require).”

And just think, “Brutus” couldn’t have possibly known who would be sitting on either the Supreme Court or the Senate Judiciary Committee right now. But, unless you are fortunate enough to take a class with the few professors of Dr. Galles’ caliber, don’t imagine that the missing history will be filled in anytime soon or that ignorance of it breaks down along political party lines.

“You are only looking for your own reality: find what comfort you may in it,” Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn writes, describing higher education today. “Little wonder that half the opinions of the Supreme Court today read as if the Constitution were unavailable to them.”

“Little wonder that members of Congress write about education requirements ad nauseam, ignorant all the while of the great documents by which education was built in our country.” Arnn’s article in the Claremont Review of Books, in which these comments were made, appeared before the results of the 2006 election were in.

Similarly, Arnn finds little hope for the better in the draft report of the president’s National Commission on the future of higher education. “It does not mention history as a subject of study,” Arnn notes. “It does not mention the Constitution, either for what it commands or allows, or as a subject of study.”

“Although busy governing, the Report does not mention government as a subject of study.” Did Republican failure to comprehend American history play a role in the GOP’s loss of control of both Houses of Congress? Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus and a lifelong student of matters constitutional does not rule out the possibility.

“The tragedy is that the Republican Congressional leadership in the House and Senate, by and large, rubber stamped unconstitutional Bush Administration policies, instead of fulfilling responsibilities of oversight and independent judgment as intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution which made the Legislative Branch of our government primary in our Federal system,” Phillips writes.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.