Although Thomas Jefferson was serving as a minister to France at the time when the Constitution was written, he nonetheless highly approved of the document and, from 1800 - 1808 as the third President of the United States, faithfully defended and followed its precepts. If anyone understood how to interpret the Constitution he certainly did. In 1823 he wrote a letter to William Johnston where he explained, "Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure… On every question of construction carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed."
There are many different legal and scholarly opinions on various phrases in the Constitution but the key to understanding this document is the purpose which its framers intended when they wrote it. Therefore, to do that it is necessary that we "go back to the time when the Constitution was adopted."
But, before we do that it would first be helpful for us to understand the meaning of two words - "left" and "right."
In today's society we hear these terms used frequently in our political discussions but most people only have a vague or erroneous understanding of what they mean. On a scale of zero to one hundred we could grade the amount of control or involvement that a government has over its people where "0" represents no government involvement at all and "100" represents total or 100% government control.
If there was no government at all people would be free to do whatever they wanted because there would be no laws preventing them from doing anything. Therefore, people would be free to kill, steal, lie, and cheat without fear of violating what society permitted. While this would allow people the maximum amount of freedom, it would also created a very chaotic and unstable society.
On the other side of the scale is 100% government control where the government tells its people everything they can or cannot do and prescribes penalties for the violation of the laws. And, for this system of government to properly function, there would also have to be some means of enforcing the laws so there would necessarily need to be some kind of a police force. While such a system of governing would create the maximum amount of order in a society, it would also leave its citizens with no freedom.
This kind of government goes by many different names and titles such as totalitarianism, socialism, Communism, fascism, kingdoms, empires, and regimes. If the leaders of these governments have a genuine interest in doing what is truly best for their people, they will produce a happy and prosperous society. On the other hand, if the leaders of such governments are more interested in preserving their power than in the welfare of their people, then the citizens will suffer under their rule in a multitude of ways. And the more dictatorial such leaders are the harsher the living conditions become for those under their rule.
The terms "left" and "right" have reference to the amount of government that someone believes in. Those on the left favor more government control while those on the right prefer less government interference in their lives. However, most on the left do not advocate total and complete government intervention in our lives and neither do those on the right support having no government at all. Therefore, both sides support some amount of government control and some degree of freedom. Where the difference between them comes is in how much freedom each side thinks is best.
This argument was at the heart of what the Founders tried to resolve when they wrote the Constitution. To help us better understand their thinking we need to understand the circumstances that led to the writing of that document.
In 1760 King George III came to the throne in England at the age of twenty-two and found his kingdom deep in debt from its war with France. Needing to raise money, the King decided to levy taxes on the American colonies. When the colonists resisted, he became adamant about exerting his sovereignty over them which soon escalated into a contest of wills. The more insistent he became in imposing his decrees upon the colonists the more resentful the colonists became and the harder they resisted the king's efforts to subjugate them.
Up until 1760 the colonists had been relatively free to govern themselves as they saw fit so they viewed the King's decrees as not only being unfair and unjust but as an infringement upon their rights as citizens of England, and the more heavy-handed the laws from England became, the more incensed the colonists became at their loss of freedom.
By 1776 the colonists could no longer tolerate the King's dictatorial control over them and they formally declared their independence from his authority. Then, once having done that, they established their own form of government called the Articles of Confederation. Under this system, there was a governing body within each state that was supreme for those living within the state's boundaries where its people had say over their own affairs.
However, both during and after the Revolutionary War this system of government soon began to create problems, mostly between the states themselves. Since there was no governmental law that dictated how the states should get along with one another, chaos soon began to develop among them as they squabbled and argued over a multitude of issues. Realizing that without some kind of intervention the states would eventually begin to engage in armed conflict with one another, a group of men proposed creating a new central government that had the power to resolve interstate disputes, make treaties with foreign countries, standardize the money system, and maintain a national army and navy.
But, just like the colonists resented England telling them what they could or couldn't do, the states resisted the formation of a central government over them for the same reasons. They didn't want to lose the freedom they enjoyed by submitting themselves to someone else's authority, even if it rested in the hands of elected Americans . Yet, at the same time, they realized that without that authority the freedom they cherished could either be lost or have little meaning if it led to anarchy or war. Therefore, the form of government our Founding Fathers finally agreed upon was one that imposed the smallest amount of government interference on them so they could enjoy the greatest amount of liberty. If "0" represents no government at all, the writers of the Constitution sought to form a central government that came as close to that number as possible, making only enough laws that were absolutely necessary for the preservation of the union.
If we were to rate our constitutional government as originally intended on a scale of 0 - 100 it would fall somewhere between 15 and 20. By comparison, today most people want their government to do much more for them which would put our current position on the scale somewhere slightly less than 50%. Since there is a wide difference of preferences on both the right and the left, those on the left would like our government control to be more like 75-85 on the scale while those on the right would like to see it be somewhere around 30-40. However, that is still higher than what our founding fathers originally intended. In fact, even at 15, there were many Americans in 1787 who felt that was still far too high on the governing scale.
However, with freedom comes responsibility for one's self but the more any government does for its citizens the less responsibility their citizens have for themselves because it is the government who assumes that duty. Robert C. Winthrop, a statesman, Congressman and Senator from Massachusetts in the early history of America explained it this way: "All societies must be governed in some way or other. They less they may have stringent state government, the more they must have individual self-government. The less they rely on public law or physical force, the more they must rely on private moral restraint. Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man."
The reason why people today want more government in their life than did our forefathers is because less people are willing to shoulder the responsibilities that our founders were willing to bear. Because our Constitution was written with the express purpose of granting all Americans the greatest amount of freedom, it also obligates its citizens to take upon themselves the greatest amount of responsibility for their conduct. As John Adams, our second President put it, "Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other."
However, there are many today who don't agree with that statement because they feel that freedom can be had without the responsibility to live by a moral or religious standard. However, such an attitude reflects a lack of understanding on how and why governments work. .
James Madison wrote "what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."
If men were angels there would be no need for a government because people would always do the right thing without being told or forced to do so. There would be no lying, cheating, stealing, backbiting, or treachery. There would be no anger, arguing, jealousy, hard feelings or vindictiveness and everyone would treat everyone else with respect, kindness, compassion, and fairness. If people had that kind of an attitude and lived according to their beliefs no laws would be necessary for people to live happily together.
However, men are not angels but neither are they devils. Instead, they are a mixture of the two, therefore some form of government is always necessary in order to preserve peace and security in a society. Yet, the more like angels men are, the less government is needed to regulate their behavior, while the more like devils men behave the more laws are necessary to control their conduct. Thus, as a general rule, the more laws and regulations a society has the greater is the likelihood that it also has a lower degree of self-restraint.
The Constitution was written with the idea that, generally speaking, people have a high standard of morality and civic duty. Because of this, the framers of our Constitution constructed a government that gave them the maximum amount of liberty with the minimum of government interference. The reason why is because they believed the people of their time were up to the task of shouldering the responsibility that freedom demands. They further believed that the principle of individual accountability would be passed down to each succeeding generation, thereby perpetuating the morals that freedom requires. And, in fact, our Founding Fathers strongly advocated that the principles of morality, religion, and patriotism be taught in all the schools.
For nearly a hundred years that was the case but by the turn of the twentieth century there were those who began proposing the idea that it was the role and even the duty of government to provide help to certain selected groups of people. However, over the years, the list of those needing help by the government continued to grow, and because some people were given "free" money, human nature being what it is, more and more people soon desired to also get something for nothing. As a result, it didn't take long before the kind of politicians who became elected were those who promised to give their constituents "free" benefits.
But this kind of attitude on the part of society creates three problems for our country. The first is that people have begun to stop depending on themselves and their own rugged individualism to get them through hard times and began depending on the government to provide for their needs. The consequence of this is that our country overall is losing much of its "can do" spirit and has become less self-sufficient and more government dependent. If Americans continue to follow this path, it will inevitably lead to a totalitarian state where the government does everything for its people mainly because the people themselves will demand it.
The second problem this creates is that it weakens our morals. The attitude of getting something for nothing is not a virtue but a vice. More than that, there is nothing free in life. In order for one person to receive something they haven't worked for, it must be given to them from someone else who has earned it. Since governments force people by law to have their money taken from them in the form of taxes, those who receive taxpayer benefits are, in effect, getting money from those who have not voluntarily given away what rightfully belongs to them.
Then, to add insult to injury, when the disadvantage demand even more money from their government they do so without concern for those whose hard earned money must be confiscated in order to provide for those who feel entitled to the fruits of someone else's labor. Instead of producing a society where its people feel protective of the rights of all people, government social programs tend to promote an attitude of selfishness in its citizenry and encourages a lack of concern for others.
The third problem this creates is that the more people who depend on the government to take care of their needs the more money the government must have in order to fund those needs. And, as more people receive money from the government, the less people there are available to provide the needed money. At some point, this method of helping people either goes bankrupt or the disadvantaged must have their benefits severely curtailed, which will cause them even more problems than they already have.
It is not a virtue to be dependent on others and our Constitution was never intended to provide relief to anyone. Instead, it was specifically designed to provide each citizen with the right to do for themselves what they wanted as long as it didn't infringe on the rights of others. Furthermore, it was based on the Judeo-Christian virtues of honesty, integrity, respect for our fellow man, and a belief that our rights come from God. When we disregard these fundamental principles we take away the basis upon which our Constitution was built. This is why John Adams said that our Constitution is made for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate for any other.
Yet, today, even among those who identify themselves as being for limited government, Americans are often not ready to adopt the kind of self-responsibility that our Constitution requires. Most people today are so used to receiving tax-funded benefits that they still want our government to do more than what the Constitution legally allows. What this illustrates is how far we have drifted away from the moral and religious principles that our forefathers once practiced. It is only by returning to conducting ourselves more like angels and less like devils that we will then be capable of truly enjoying the freedom that comes from adhering to the Constitution.