Historians have unearthed a nearly 225-year old document which was apparently intended by its authors to be “the supreme Law of the Land.” Researchers have made the surprising discovery that the writing, the Constitution of the United States, was meant to limit the size and scope of the federal government.
Written in 1787, the Constitution was discovered at the National Archives, which houses historical records and artifacts. The document was found encased in an elaborate system of vaults and bullet-proof glass, suggesting an attempt to hide it forever.
“This is a breath-taking revelation,” said David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States. “We’ve now found evidence that the people who started this country created a government that was designed to operate much differently than it now does.”
A constitution is a nation’s governing document, from which legal authority and public institutions are derived. Constitutions, like the one discovered in Washington, also often include provisions outlining citizens’ rights and limitations on government designed to protect them.
The discovery is sending shockwaves through the nation’s capital. “The president has expressed his surprise and cautious optimism upon unearthing this so-called Constitution,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.
President Obama taught constitutional law prior to launching his political career. However, like many politicians, he believed the document to be more of an historical myth than reality.
“It was more of an abstract idea to him, and I think many in our government, including the Supreme Court, have traditionally held that view,” said Gibbs. “So you can imagine how much of a shock to the system this is.”
While the insurgent Tea Party movement has stressed adherence to limited government, many Republican leaders have expressed surprise that there is an historical basis for such a view.
“We like to invoke the notion of a Constitution and complain about activist judges whenever we aren’t in power, but we never imagined this was an actual thing,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, in line to be the next speaker of the House of Representatives.
Political analysts point out that the U.S. government has been expanding its powers for decades. With so many piles of paper dedicated to new laws and regulations, researchers say, it isn’t surprising that the relatively short Constitution got lost in the shuffle.
Archivists are in the process of inspecting the Constitution. Preliminary readings have revealed a list of specific powers designated to the Congress, such as declaring war. Such has not been the practice since World War II; instead, presidents from both political parties have themselves sent troops into conflicts all over the world.
Even more surprising are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which historians collectively call the Bill of Rights. One amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, another the right to free speech. Significantly, the Tenth Amendment expressly limits the federal government’s reach to the powers enumerated in the original Constitution.
“This means, in essence, that unless some activity is specifically listed in the Constitution, it is illegal for the federal government to engage in it,” said Professor Sid Mullis of Western Indiana University. “It would therefore be mandatory to amend the Constitution to permit the activity in question.”
Legends of a Constitution have permeated American culture since its origin. Cries of “unconstitutional” behavior have attended nearly every major political controversy and social movement.
However, in judicial decisions on such matters, judges have tended to rely more on policy preferences, legislative discretion, and personal feelings than the heretofore mythical document.
Julie Yadkin, a former Supreme Court clerk, said she always invoked the Constitution when doing her work. However, she used the word “Constitution” as a metaphor and never intended it to refer to an actual supreme law.
“It was one of those undefined, idealistic, Americana type of things, like liberty or land of opportunity,” she said. “I never actually used it because I didn’t know it existed.”
Reinforcing the cautiousness of the president’s optimism, said Gibbs, are some early indications that the ancient document may have provided justification for expanded government powers after all.
For instance, Article I, section 8 reads, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States.”
“Even though the writers of this document took the time to specifically limit what the federal government can and can’t do, the president is optimistic that this ‘general welfare’ clause really means we can just do whatever we want,” Gibbs said. “Otherwise, pretty much every single thing the government now does would be unconstitutional and, thus, a betrayal of this country and every American.”