On Sept. 19, 1796, the American Daily Advertiser published George Washington’s farewell address.
When people remember or discuss the address, they most often recall his warning against political parties, his admonition to avoid entangling foreign alliances, and his insistence that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity. But we often read right over an even more poignant warning in Washington’s address; a warning we failed to heed to our own detriment.
Washington advised that we should hold tight to the original Constitution and avoid giving in to the temptation to turn it into a “living, breathing” document that changes at the whim of whoever holds power. As Washington put it, we must “resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts.”
Washington wrote that “one method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.”
We see these alterations in the Constitution all the time – mostly courtesy of the federal courts as they have expanded various clauses to “authorize” federal actions that were clearly left to the states and the people. Thanks to these constitutional “alterations,” the federal government has interjected itself into almost every area of our lives, from dictating how much water flushes down our toilets to the kinds of light bulbs we can screw into our fixtures.
Of course, we can’t place blame solely on the courts. Presidents have seized a wide range of unconstitutional powers, further altering and undermining the constitutional system. As just one example, abandoning the constitutional division of war powers and allowing the president to initiate military operations has led to more than two decades of endless warfare.
And Congress has done its part, punting much of its responsibility to the executive branch by passing broadly worded bills that allow executive branch bureaucrats to essentially write the law after the fact.
Washington warned us that these kinds of alterations would undermine the system. James Madison, who wrote the first draft of Washington’s address, offered a similar warning, emphasizing the importance of a fixed Constitution. In a letter to Henry Lee, Madison wrote:
“I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers. If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology were to be taken in its modern sense!”
Washington wrote that “time and habit are at least as necessary to fix the true character o