A few days ago I stumbled onto a conversation about politics and world affairs. It didn’t take long before someone made the oft-repeated remark that the world is such a different place from when the Constitution was written. The Founders could not have imagined the world we live in, she argued. She stopped short of saying it outright but the implication was that since the world is a different place than the 1780s, the Constitution is irrelevant.
The first problem with this attitude, of course, is that once we reject the law of the land—for whatever reason—anarchy quickly ensues. But leaving that problem aside, I’d like to examine the truth of her statement. Is the world really so different today?
We tend to romanticize the past, especially the time of the founding of our country. We underestimate the incredible difficulty of establishing a new form of government, as if the early Americans had peace and prosperity and very few worries and the idealism of the Constitution was forged in a simpler time and therefore has little relevance in the complex modern world. But a close look at the early days of the Republic provides a very different picture.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, the fledgling country was faced with a serious economic depression caused by a massive war debt. The government tried to spur on the economy by printing more paper money, which resulted in skyrocketing inflation. The country was broke!
Additionally, banks were foreclosing on homes and property. Outraged citizens who believed that the government was conspiring with banks to abuse the populous did more than “occupy” Washington, D.C. They marched on the town with weapons and intended to overthrow the government.
The early Republic also relied heavily on foreign trade for its economic survival. The truth is there has never been a time when the US was not involved in a global economy—a current popular catchphrase used to distinguish modern America from its allegedly simpler economic past.
To complicate matters, the perpetual European warfare constantly threatened American economic interests. There were some who, as is the case today, insisted that the young country go to war to protect its interests, but the majority preferred diplomacy. It’s nothing short of miraculous that the Founders crafted a foreign policy that was both concerned with avoiding war and with protecting our economy, livelihoods, and safety.
Furthermore, within a few years the fledgling country was faced with attacks from Islamic terrorists. Barbary pirates attacked Americans and the US was drawn into its first foreign military conflict.
Sounds awful familiar, doesn’t it? Of course I suspect that when people speak about how different the world is they are really talking about technology. The girl confirmed my suspicions when she said, “The fact that we are having this discussion on Facebook shows what a different ball game we are in.”
Really? The existence of Facebook negates the US Constitution? I don’t understand why people insist that technology changes enduring principles. Technology does not alter human nature. People are still people and throughout time people have always wanted the same things: personal peace, prosperity, the good life. Technology changes none of that.
If anything, the existence of technology that can destroy multitudes should make us cling even more to the guiding principles of the Constitution. We need more wisdom from the past, not less.
There is no issue confronting our country right now that was not at least in principle in the hearts and minds of those who crafted the Constitution. We may debate how to best apply those principles, but we disregard their wisdom at our own peril.