Morality and the Constitution as a Suicide Pact
Morality and the Constitution as a Suicide Pact
Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, in a dissenting opinion in Terminiello v. City of Chicago in 1949, coined the phrase “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.” The saying is a paraphrase of what he actually said, but fourteen years later in Kennedy v. Mendoza-Martinez, Goldberg wrote pretty much the same thing.
What does that even mean? It’s a catchphrase bandied about by the Left; David Corn wrote for Slate in 2011 that “Extremism in the name of civil liberties could lead to the destruction of the nation.” It sounds so noble, this assertion that sometimes, the government must—unwillingly, of course—step in and regulate or even take away civil liberties in order to mitigate a threat. What constitutes a threat is determined by the same Government that stands to benefit from the control exerted. It’s to keep you safe, we’re told. The Constitution, according to this school of thought, is a great document to be followed, until the government decides that it should not be followed. You have rights…until you don’t.
We are no stranger to this erosion. It started long ago, and just like water can carve out rock, the relentless and inherent conflict between the government and the governed has managed to corral our society into a morally bankrupt caricature of the beautiful framework that the Founders provided us with. “Morality can’t be legislated,” claim the relativists, yet the Constitution’s entire raison d’être is exactly that: legislated morality, through due process. Peter Brandon Bayer writes that “America’s validation stems from the morality of the Constitution and how steadfastly we maintain it.” It is why we talk about taking the high road in our dealings with both our friends and our enemies. It is why we have men and women who lay down their lives for people they have never met.
The Constitution is more than the core of our law. It is the core of our conscience, the measuring stick of our society. It is the litmus test of our freedom. Without the morality imbued in its pages, America is lost. The government’s main function—its only real function—is to provide justice, to protect its citizens from invasion, from injustice. This means that we must adhere to that morality, to that justice, at all costs. As Immanuel Kant wrote, “Let justice be done even if the world should perish.”
What happens when there is no justice in the government that only exists to provide it? What happens when injustice becomes commonplace, wielded against the governed? The entire contract of the Constitution is based upon a very clear and basic premise. It is We the People saying, “This is what we expect of our government. This is what you can do, and what you cannot do. In return, we agree to abide by rules of conduct borne of natural law, to provide you with elected representatives and participate in the process. If you the government, however, should overreach your authority or abuse the trust that We the People have placed in you, we have several avenues of recourse, and we pledge that we will use them.”
The last of those avenues is so terrible, so horrifying, that no man wishes it. It is a bitter cup, to be tasted only after much soul-searching, after every other option has been tried and tried again. Its mere mention serves to divide those who claim the title of patriot into two groups: those who would run, and those who would stand.
It is easy to see those who fall into the first group. They are caught up in labels and political parties. They love the luncheons and the speakers and the busyness of it all. They’re involved. They are the ones who think the Second Amendment was created for hunting. They shrug at the idea of every thought and deed catalogued by the government, for they are either too lazy to stop it or too afraid to try. They denigrate those who refuse to vote for yet another awful choice. They demand that we let go of our moral compass for the sake of “tolerance” and “including everyone in the big tent.” Some of them find reasons and rationale for their inaction, always managing to find a way to justify doing nothing.
They are pathetic, and they are cowards.
Nothing but wheat to be ground in the ever-turning mill of tyrannical control, they are the ones who will sell out their neighbor for food, trade their guns for a promise of safety from the government that enslaves them. They are, as John Stewart Mill wrote, “miserable creatures who have no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than themselves.”
Who are the better men (and women)? They are warriors. They are sheepdogs.
They are ever steadfast, ever vigilant. They are watching, waiting, preparing. They are the ones who teach their children that being an American is so much more than being born within a certain set of borders. They are the ones who possess that sense of knowing, way down deep in their core, that there are things worth fighting for, worth suffering for…worth dying for. For them, freedom is not an abstract currency to be traded in because of fear. It is to be protected and defended at all costs, even if it means that they are not personally alive to enjoy it later. In fact, that is the piece of it all that truly defines the members of this group: they are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may live free. I am simultaneously proud and humbled to be a part of them; proud because we have such a beautiful, noble legacy, and humbled because I can only hope to conduct myself as honorably and bravely as those who bought my own freedom.
The Constitution is not just a piece of paper to us. It is a sacred, solemn pledge that we made to ourselves and to the government we created. It is everything our nation has ever been and was designed to be. Without it we fail, both as a country and as an idea. This means that once we have exhausted the other means of redress, once we have ascertained that tyranny is present and growing, once we have realized in our heart of hearts that there is no other way…there is only one course of action left to take. We accept both the action and the consequences, because we understand what the Constitution truly is. We close our eyes and pray that the day never comes where we must take our place on the line, but we prepare for it with a resolute heart because we see it approaching. It is our duty, our birthright.
The Constitution, as Bayer wrote, is a suicide pact. It is an agreement made by the Founders of this nation that We the People will never allow tyranny in our land—not now, not here, not ever. It is a promise made in blood that we will stand against the evil that constantly threatens our freedom. When we hear people like Dianne Feinstein or Barack Obama speak so glibly about taking our freedoms ‘for safety’s sake,’ we understand the dangerous intents that lurk in their words. We do not seek combat, or glory, nor do we seek a martyr’s death. The American fighting men in the Tomb of the Unknowns did not demand recognition, and neither do we. All we demand, in fact, is liberty.
The Founders pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to protect and defend the principles of liberty, and the morality that must by necessity be present within it. They honored their pledge, though it spilled their blood. We are their sons and daughters; we must honor ours.
Let justice be done, even if we perish.
[Note: The idea of the Constitution as a suicide pact is not my own; Peter Brandon Bayer’s excellent paper entitled “Sacrifice and Sacred Honor: Why the Constitution is a Suicide Pact” explains the above concepts in depth, as well as some of the philosophy behind them. Please take the time to read the complete work; it is well worth your time.]