In his seminal and ultimately destructive majority opinion in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Roger Taney claimed that the United States Constitution denied a former slave citizenship, and thus standing in federal court.
He also construed the Constitution to deny Congress power to regulate the territories with respect to slavery:
“The Constitution of the United States recognises slaves as property, and pledges the Federal Government to protect it. And Congress cannot exercise any more authority over property of that description than it may constitutionally exercise over property of any other kind.”
By interpreting the Constitution thusly, Taney was attempting to set the stage for the slaveholding states to retain control of the Senate and ensure them perpetual victories in presidential contests. In other words, he found a meaning in the Constitution that suited the political outcome he endorsed.
Today’s liberal democrats are similarly twisting the Constitution for the same reason. They become scholars of the Constitution—or at least various phrases in it—only when they think they can gain political advantage from its advocacy.
They are the heirs of Taney and other pre-Civil War Democrats who did precisely the same thing.
More than a decade before the war between the states, Jefferson Davis, as a junior Senator from Mississippi, contended that the Constitution was, above all, a compact that preserved property rights. If the Congress could not protect all southerners’ property (slaves) in all parts of the federal territories, then the union was worthless, in his explanation of it. His view narrowed the meaning of the Constitution so extremely that nothing else mattered but the preservation of the one issue most important to him and his constituents.
What these antebellum Democrats all aimed for was far different than their modern counterparts, to be sure. Yet their methods of argumentation have this in common: they take one phrase of the Constitution and apply it in any contorted way that might give them a rhetorical leg to stand on.
Lincoln showed us a better way. Despite his vehement opposition of slavery and desire to see it abolished, he neither found nor endorsed any Constitutional authority to act in that direction until the Confederacy waged war against the Union, triggering broader presidential powers to prosecute the war and deal with slavery in a different way.
By contrast, today’s Democrats, in the case of health care, referred to the Constitution only as a procedural document, ignoring its deference to the rights of states and individuals. They found its one clause that could possibly be construed to support their position and seized upon it with all of their political vigor.
Likewise, many Democrats have suddenly become constitutionalists when it comes to the debt ceiling battle, having found a phrase that refers to the public debt, that it “shall not be questioned.” Taken to its extreme, this argument says that Congress shouldn’t even debate the subject, but give the executive branch as much money as it desires for whatever purpose.
One particularly rich line of reasoning comes from the New Yorker, whose author advocates the president simply borrow money by fiat under the “faithful execution” clause, as if the chief executive has no other options about how to spend money the Congress did lawfully appropriate.
One day, the Left is deriding Republicans in Congress for wanting to adhere to the Constitution, the next they are zealots for misapplied passages. They disparage loyalty to the document that so many on the Right revere because any sensible interpretation of it would put their liberal schemes in an unfavorable, and unconstitutional, light.
The dangers to the republic of such a malicious interpretation of the Constitution in the era of slavery are well known to history. Too often, poor arguments won the day and split our nation along bolder lines and across wider chasms. Masked in eloquence, they provided cover for those who honored the Constitution but lacked the courage to stop blatant tyranny in its tracks.
Today it is the same. The danger is different, but no less divisive or perilous to the long term viability of republican government.
No one can sincerely believe that the leftists take their own argument seriously. This is their modus operandi. When they are up against a wall, they scour the Constitution for any semblance of a phrase that can be managed to support their position, then proceed to lecture the rest of us on the founders’ intent.
They might fool themselves, but patriots cannot let them persuade anyone else.