April 17th, 2012

The Confidence of Men and Constitutional Chains

At last night’s debate amongst Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Orrin Hatch (and to which he is seeking re-election for a seventh term), a question was asked of the three candidates present regarding the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012.

In his remarks, Senator Hatch dismissed any concern that the powers purportedly granted to the President under that bill were unconstitutional and worrisome. “Habeas corpus hasn’t been done away with,” he said. “And I have to say, some of the worries that some of the far right conservatives have are misplaced. I assure you, nobody’s going to be mistreated under the NDAA.” Just seconds later he restated his point once more to emphasize his position: “I can assure you that habeas corpus is not done away with—that’s a constitutional principle we have abided by.”

This position is not an uncommon one; many of the NDAA’s supporters have offered a justification for their vote that amounts to little more than “trust me!” Mitt Romney, who has endorsed Senator Hatch for re-election, essentially said that very thing when asked in a recent debate about whether he would have signed the bill into law as President. After noting that he would have signed it, Romney emphasized the importance of having this type of tool available—the indefinite detention of anyone suspected of being or supporting a terrorist in any capacity. To apparently ameliorate the concerns of the critics, Romney offered this response:

And I recognize, I recognize that in a setting where they are enemy combatants and on our own soil, that could possibly be abused. There are a lot of things I think this president does wrong, lots of them, but I don’t think he is going to abuse this power and I that if I were president I would not abuse this power. And I can also tell you that in my view you have to choose people who you believe have sufficient character not to abuse the power of the presidency and to make sure that we do not violate our constitutional principles.

Both Hatch and Romney are saying that the concerns regarding the power to indefinitely detain are misguided, because we should trust our leaders not to abuse those powers. Romney, often critical of Obama, says that he doesn’t think Obama would abuse the power. And we’re also supposed to be reassured that a President Romney would not abuse them either. Of course, this issue is not specific only to the NDAA; Senator Hatch similarly dismissed constitutional concerns regarding the PATRIOT Act, for example, by simply decreeing that it “has not eroded any of the rights we hold dear as Americans”—a patently absurd allegation that has no basis in fact.

The idea that Americans should simply trust elected officials (and faceless bureaucrats) with significant political power is not only stupid—it’s downright un-American.

On the floor of the House of Representatives in 1812, John Randolph tore to pieces Mitt Romney’s call for “character” in a powerful presidency as some supposed restraint on that supreme power:

The people of this country, if ever they lose their liberties, will do it by sacrificing some great principle of government to temporary passion. There are certain great principles, which if they are not held inviolable, at all seasons, our liberty is gone. If we give them up, it is perfectly immaterial what is the character of our sovereign; whether he be King or President, elective or hereditary — it is perfectly immaterial what is his character — we shall be slaves — it is not an elective government which will preserve us.

Thomas Jefferson also spoke to this idea of trusting politicians to do the right thing. Drafting the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Jefferson declared that that state was determined “to submit to undelegated and consequently unlimited powers in no man, or body of men on earth.” Taking on the “trust” issue directly, Jefferson wrote:

It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power… our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go.

In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.

Numerous other quotes could be summoned in support of this idea, but these suffice to demonstrate the absolute repugnance at the very thought of trusting politicians with powers not delegated in the Constitution. Confidence in politicians makes men slaves, as Representative Randolph noted; the deferral of any “necessary” power to the government is a misguided idea that should be restrained by the “chains of the Constitution.”

One should never give his friend a power that he wouldn’t want his enemy to have. By granting illegitimate and tyrannical authority to a politician that one trusts—even if that person is worthy of that trust—a precedent is set that opens up that power for use (and expansion) by any future politician. Even if a President Romney were to have the “character” not to indefinitely detain American citizens (something that violates numerous constitutional clauses), who is to say how that power would be used by his successor?

Daniel Webster, another liberty-minded patriot from the founding era, echoed the sentiment of his contemporaries which completely contradicts the servile statements made by men like Hatch and Romney. He said:

Human beings, we may be assured, will generally exercise power when they can get it; and they will exercise it most undoubtedly, in popular governments, under pretenses of public safety or high public interest. It may be very possible that good intentions do really sometimes exist when constitutional restraints are disregarded. There are men, in all ages, who mean to exercise power usefully—but who mean to exercise it. They mean to govern well—but they mean to govern. They promise to be kind masters—but they mean to be masters.

Americans must ask themselves whether or not they want “masters” at all. More importantly, they must consider whether they are currently slaves in a system where rather than having a government chained down by the Constitution, they have themselves become chained down by an unrestrained government. Determining how best to break free from those shackles first requires noticing that they even exist; “None are more hopelessly enslaved,” said Goethe, “than those who falsely believe they are free.”

Hatch, Romney, and too many other politicians who ask for our confidence in them, and the system they want to be a part of, ask for trust and power rather than jealousy and restraint. Fool Americans once and turn us into chained-down slaves, shame on you. Fool Americans twice and as our “masters” ask for our ongoing trust…

Shame on us.

10 Responses to “The Confidence of Men and Constitutional Chains”

  1. JJL9
    April 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    I don’t want to sound like a broken record because I have made this comment before…

    But in 1934 Hitler had less dictatorial authority than the current President of the United States has.

    But I’m sure we have nothing to worry about because we can just make sure we elect people we can trust not to abuse that power…

  2. Jim Davis
    April 17, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    A principled, truth-loving person will recognize how absurd the NDAA is. I haven’t noticed those traits amongst Romney/Hatch supporters.

  3. Charles D
    April 19, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    I agree totally with your position here. Obama is the living proof that we should not trust what politicians say. The only politician who has outdone him on doing the opposite of what he says is Mitt Romney. I trust neither of these men to wisely use power they should not have.

    Good luck in the Senate election. You supporting Pete Ashdown?

  4. chris
    April 25, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Connor, Would you please quote the relevant and offending passages of the NDAA? I noticed a bunch of quotes and links in your post, but none to the thing you are rallying against.

  5. Jonathan Streeter
    April 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    Thanks for keeping this on the radar Conner. These laws are always sold to the public under the guide of the most conservative interpretation of the law – but once it is “The Law” the politicians look to the most liberal interpretation in order to justify whatever claim to power they desire.

    This is why you should assess these laws not by what the lawmakers tell you it will do, but rather what could be conceivably stretched and construed from the words of the law. If this expanded potential interpretation of the law violates the inalienable tenets of liberty – then the law should not stand.

  6. Amber
    April 26, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    There is an astounding lack of dissent on this issue. Where did the pet trolls go?

  7. JL
    April 30, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    When you boil it down to this:

    More importantly, they must consider whether they are currently slaves in a system where rather than having a government chained down by the Constitution, they have themselves become chained down by an unrestrained government.

    I say it is definitely the latter.

  8. Mark N.
    May 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm #

    The rule of law is so passé. All you need are lawyers who are willing to tell you what you want to hear, so that you can do what you want to do, and then it’s all good. Such is the state of the US government today.

  9. Bob
    May 5, 2012 at 4:04 pm #

    One of the really bad parts is section 1031 of the NDAA. A quick google and I found a link that has all the links for it here: http://battlefieldamerica.wordpress.com/2011/12/23/ndaa-section-1031-indefinite-detention/

    The Bill can be found here:

    It was signed into law by Obama on January 1, 2012.

  10. Chaske Fisher
    May 18, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    Romney and Hatch have little to no conception of what the intent of the founders was or what the Constitution says or means.

    The former has spent his life robbing our citizens of their retirement and nest eggs through multitudes of devious and cunning practices while the latter is a professional politician mainly concerned with himself and maintaining his position in elected office.

    Both use liberty to further their political objectives rather than fighting for liberty as their objective.

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