After summarizing the copious arguments for the ratification of the Constitution in the last of the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton gave vent, briefly, to the emotions he felt as he contemplated the choice before the infant republic.
"A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle," he wrote. "The establishment of a Constitution, in a time of profound peace, by the voluntary consent of a whole people, is a prodigy, to the completion of which I look forward with trembling anxiety."
Last week, almost 200 years after that prodigy of human statecraft came into being, the Senate of the United States voted for an amendment to the Constitution to require a balanced budget, except in time of war or by vote of 60 percent of both houses of Congress.
And this is what a U.S. senator, John G. Tower of Texas, offered as a rationale for his vote:
"I think that the whole exercise on this constitutional amendment is the ultimate confession of failure on the part of the Congress of the United States. We are unable to discipline ourselves to do what we should do and, therefore, we feel constrained to try to institutionalize that discipline in the Constitution. . . .
"This is a matter that should not really be in the fundamental law of this land. . . . (But) there is a great deal of popular support for the submission of this amendment. Therefore, I think that we are obliged to submit it to a referendum of the people as they are represented in their respective state legislatures. Because I think it should be submitted to such a referendum and because I think there should be a great national debate on this issue, I intend to vote to report the amendment. However, if invited by any state legislature in the country, I would be deeply delighted to testify against its ratification."
What a speech! And what a commentary on the condition of public life and leadership in this republic.
When we were a shaky seaboard society but recently liberated from colonial status, men of influence were prepared to risk "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor" to fight for the ratification of the charter of this nation's being.
Today, this vast, rich and powerful nation is governed by people who, reducing their status to clerkships, are prepared--against their better judgment--to forward, for inclusion in that charter, any kind of simple-minded scheme that they think commands a popular majority.
The point is not to condemn Tower. His own words do that. He was not more cynical, but more open, than many of the 69 senators who voted for the amendment, knowing it to be fundamentally wrong.
The convenient rationalization he offered was, in fact, adopted by the leaders of the Senate. Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee used it to solicit votes in his closing speech. Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia employed it in his after-the-fact explanation of his own tortured vote for the amendment.
Not to worry, they said. It's just a harmless little old constitutional amendment, which happens to shackle the national government and prevents it from conducting a national economic policy. Just a little-bitty amendment that transfers from the majority to a minority of 40 percent the ultimate power to set fiscal policy, meaning, among other things, the capacity of this country to defend itself and to secure the general welfare--the fundamental purposes of creating the national government.
But not to worry, they said. The House may not pass it. The legislatures may not ratify it.
Don't you believe it. Cowardice is contagious, and the Senate has set a standard of spinelessness the election- jittery House will be only too happy to follow. Already, one hears House leaders saying that it might be politically smart to let the members vote for the amendment, in a slightly different form, to "protect themselves" for election purposes, and then hope that it dies in a protracted House-Senate conference committee.
But the conferees will not withstand the heat--nor will the state legislators --unless someone decides to stop the buck-passing and vote on conviction. In the Federalist papers, Hamilton, quoting English philosopher David Hume, explained that the procedure for amending the Constitution was made difficult so that "the judgments of many must unite in the work (and) experience must guide their labor."
But Hamilton did not reckon with the kind of leaders we have today, who are all too eager to suspend judgment, ignore experience and avoid responsibility.
It is a different kind of "trembling anxiety" one feels when the Constitution falls into the hands of such people.