After celebrating our 242nd Independence Day, an ominous, silent threat looms over the most fundamental American document — the Constitution.
Over the past few decades, dozens of states have passed legislation calling for a constitutional convention on a variety of topics. Article V of the Constitution requires approval from 34 states (two-thirds of the states) to initiate a convention. We are frighteningly close, and Virginia legislators are routinely being asked to push us to the brink.
A constitutional convention is the nuclear option in American politics. It reflects a nation tired of engaging in the time-consuming, painstaking, and consensual democratic process of self-government.
At a time of heightened political divisiveness, seeking refuge in a constitutional convention might seem a reasonable course of action to some. Heck — the Framers did this, didn’t they?
In fact, they didn’t. The Framers were united by common concerns about the nation’s survival; the economy was in shambles, the western borders were unprotected, the British navy was still in the Great Lakes. The nation was weak and imperiled.
The Framers organized the Philadelphia convention, in response, to address the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and form a more perfect union.
Today’s calls for a constitutional convention are radically different.
Among the states that have called for a convention, there is no common impulse. Instead, there is a disorganized hodgepodge of concerns, ranging from balanced budgets to income tax changes to congressional term limits, that could be addressed through the legislative process.
These calls also contradict the Framers’ spirit. The Constitution is a short, general document that places few limits on politics because the Framers were democrats who respected the right of the people to govern themselves.
Yet, they protected a few things — freedom of religion and speech, rights to due process — from partisan political passions and created broad safeguards for a limited number of rights.
They left the rest for the people to debate through the political process. As Chief Justice John Marshall stated in Marbury v. Madison: “[The Constitution’s] nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.”
The Framers made the Constitution difficult to amend so that only the gravest of issues — those that could unite a large, plural nation — would form the basis for amending it and thereby altering the rules by which we conduct politics.
Even more frightening is that the entire Constitution will be in play during a convention. The First Amendment could disappear, so could gun rights. There is no guarantee that any of our current constitutionally protected rights would be included in a new constitution. The only guarantee is that all of those rights would be imperiled.
Virginia is the home of so many of our nation’s Founding Fathers; we cannot allow our state to help blow up the constitutional framework they created.
Those calling for a convention on both the left and the right have forsaken the charge given to us by the Framers — by not engaging in the painstaking, slow process of political debate and compromise. Instead, in hopes of putting an end to debates about divisive political issues, they are willing to risk political chaos.
The Framers saw a constitutional convention as a last resort. It was indeed their political nuclear option. Fortunately, they put aside what divided them to forge a document that would unite the country.
Today’s calls for a convention are driven by divisiveness. We cannot be sure what the fallout of a convention may be, but we can be certain it will be bad.
Americans should pressure their legislatures to rescind the aging calls for a constitutional convention and get back to the work of self-government that makes our democracy and Constitution worth fighting to preserve.