The Constitutional Convention Trap

Conservatives need to be careful — before you know it the left would be running the show Original Article

A dangerous idea has been circulating over the past few years: that it is time to call a new Constitutional convention, to remedy the vast overreach of federal power. But therein lies a treacherous trap: such a body’s powers cannot be limited. The end result easily could prove the polar opposite of what those seeking revision intended.

Conventions are by their nature extraordinary bodies whose powers are inherently plenary. The 1787 convocation in Philadelphia was a runaway convention. Tasked with merely revising the Articles of Confederation’s “firm league of friendship” among sovereign states, it created a supreme federal government whose sovereignty trumped that of the states. The feeble federal government created by the Articles could not even levy taxes; we should be so lucky today.

It was the cause of preserving the federal Union thus established, and not that of abolishing slavery, that triggered our ruinous Civil War 83 years after the Constitution was ratified. Thus Abraham Lincoln said during America’s epic fratricidal conflict that he must have Kentucky, a slave state he successfully wooed to join the North.

Thomas Jefferson called the delegates who comprised the Framers of the 1787 Grand Convention “an assembly of demigods.” Now, imagine Framers 2.0 including the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary, Eric Holder, Al Sharpton, and Barbara Boxer. They would make what Mr. Jefferson surely would have called an assembly of demagogues.

The Framers, as Alexander Hamilton penned in Federalist 85, saw in “a headless government… an awful spectacle.” Today’s hydra-headed federal giant squid extending its tentacles into every nook and cranny of American life is the converse case, a tyrannical “awful spectacle” that the Anti-Federalists warned would come to pass. (Those so dubbed then were in fact the true federalists; those who called themselves “Federalists” were in fact nationalists. But they could not openly have triumphed as such, so they disingenuously defined themselves and their opponents, following a time-honored maxim of political strategy to define your opponent before he defines you.)

Factor in that this time dominant leftist media would transform the conclave into the greatest political circus of all, tilting towards the most progressive Democrats on every issue. Their cheerleaders in the media would amplify their shrill, pro-Big Government voices. Voices of restraint would be swept aside by intense passions of the moment—passions of the very kind that Madison and Hamilton warned about, and sought to manage by creating a Senate whose members are elected to terms whose length can cool the populist ardor of those serving terms one-third as long in the House.

Expect that the hyper-statists also would expediently repair to conservative icon Ronald Reagan’s oft-used Thomas Paine quote: “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” Though Paine incited popular resentment against encroachments by the British upon the freedoms cherished by their stubbornly recalcitrant American subjects, he championed first and foremost the French Revolution, whose utopian aims and unchecked reign of terror were the early precursors of the totalitarian mega-tyrannies of Nazism and Communism. The Framers of 1787, in stark contrast to the French revolutionaries of 1789, understood that we could not entirely remake the world. Instead they carefully surveyed historical lessons from the past, preserving things deemed useful, discarding the rest.

Think also of those legends of 1787, not here now to help us revise the Constitution: no magisterial George Washington, the sole delegate whom everyone trusted totally, whose presence reassured everyone that the proceedings would be conducted honorably; no witty sage Ben Franklin to play the role of gray eminence; no studious James Madison to be its leading-light, prime architect of the federal Constitution—its separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and the Bill of Rights that semi-checked federal power.

Likely a new charter would combine the worst parts of the UN’s economic rights mandating massive government intervention; California’s populist monstrosity with referenda galore; and Valery Giscard D’Estaing’s bloated, super-state European Union straitjacket. Expect that the results of Convention 2.0 would include ending the Electoral College protection for small states; myriad P.C. limits on formerly free speech (secular or religious)—already under intense fire; and an even more gargantuan federal government Godzilla.

Stir in an increasingly historically challenged public, whose grasp of the current federal Constitution, let alone of the grave risks attendant to revising what has stood for 237 years since it was ratified by the States, is increasingly sketchy. Such a misbegotten work product could well spawn a new, enduring “Disunited States of America.”

Those calling for a new convention had best keep in mind the ancient Chinese admonition: Be careful what you wish for, lest you get it.

John Wohlstetter

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (beg. 2001) and the Gold Institute for International Strategy (beg. 2021). His primary areas of expertise are national security and foreign policy, and the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He is author of Sleepwalking With The Bomb (2nd ed. 2014), and The Long War Ahead and The Short War Upon Us (2008). He was founder and editor of the issues blog Letter From The Capitol (2005-2015). His articles have been published by The American Spectator, National Review Online, Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Daily Caller, PJ Media, Washington Times and others. He is an amateur concert pianist, residing in Charleston, South Carolina.