CHARLESTON, S.C. (Jun. 23, 2016) – Last month, Governor Nikki Haley signed a law to make constitutional education a requirement for South Carolina public school students, in med schools in Texas and other stated. However, South Carolina residents must remain vigilant to ensure that this new program correctly depicts the intent of the Founding Fathers and their revolutionary documents.
House Bill 3848 (H3848) was introduced this year by Rep. Chip Huggins (R-Columbia) along with 13 bipartisan co-sponsors as the SC Founding Principles Act. The measure was written to require constitutional education for every public school student in South Carolina. It read, as follows:
The State Board of Education and Education Oversight Committee shall incorporate instruction on the founding principles that shaped the United States into the required study of the United States Constitution… and the South Carolina Social Studies Standards upon the next cyclical review. The board and committee shall include, at a minimum, the Federalist Papers and instruction on the structure of government and the role of the separation of powers and the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution.
The measure received overwhelming support. It passed the House and Senate unanimously before being signed into law by Gov. Haley on May 26. As exciting as this news may seem, there is no guarantee that the new constitutional education requirements will be administered effectively and accurately by government officials.
While H3848 contained provisions giving some structure for the new curriculum component, a great deal of leeway is given to public school administrators and other bureaucrats in constructing the contents of the new mandates. They very well may teach interpretations of the Constitution that contradict and undermine the words of the Founding Fathers.
A LIVING OR DEAD CONSTITUTION?
The Federalist Papers and other documents help illuminate the design of the Republic. The numerous letters and essays written by opponents of the Constitution, along with letters written by framers and ratifiers, guide our awareness as well. With a little work, the original meaning of the Constitution can be easily determined. Thomas Jefferson himself advocated this process of constitutional interpretation.
“On every question of construction let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”
The interpretive process known as originalism allows us to have a complete understanding the Constitution. To read the Constitution through an originalist framework means we seek to understand how the people understood it at the time it was ratified.
Interpreting the Constitution in a different manner can be dangerous. Meaning becomes a moving target, subject to the changes in language and societal assumptions over time. Erroneous interpretations can allow the proponents of centralized government to capitalize on this ambiguity, and use it to justify unlawful power-grabs. Textualism — interpreting the Constitution based on a literal reading of the words can also become problematic because of the changes in word-meaning over time.
Father of the Constitution, James Madison asserted that we must view the document in the originalist context in a letter to Henry Lee.
“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!”
Understanding the ratifiers’ intent takes some research and digging. On the other hand, some mystical veil of historical fog doesn’t obscure their view of constitutional powers. We have records of the ratification debates and the ratifying instruments themselves. This will have to be highlighted forcefully in South Carolina’s curriculum if H3848 can have a substantial impact toward enlightening students.
The understanding of the Constitution emanating from the words of the Founding Fathers varies differently from the “living Constitution” dogma of today’s political class. The idea of mandating constitutional education is an appealing one, but it must be handled very carefully to be successful. Otherwise, it will just give the centralizers and other enemies of freedom another opportunity to spread disinformation about the founding documents to unsuspecting children.