home > archive > 2002 > this article
Three Score and
Thirteen: A Study of the United States Constitution and the Federalist
Veteran defends Constitution In writing
By W. James Antle III
The idea that only lawyers and other trained professionals are qualified to understand the Constitution is possibly the biggest reason it has become a "living document" that is more like a dead letter. Upholding the Constitution and its limits on the federal government is in fact incumbent upon every American.
In Three Score and Thirteen: A Study of the United States Constitution and the Federalist Papers, James B. Plair does this essential duty. Along with his wife Sally, who served as his editor for this project, Plair outlines the actual text of the Constitution and amplifies its meaning with the help of quotations from The Federalist Papers, an important series of essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison that help us understand the Framers' intentions.
A graduate of the Citadel and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, Plair's life experience and self-described "Jeffersonian conservative" beliefs would prepare him for this service to his country. Three Score and Thirteen evinces a respect for the idea of constitutionally limited government sadly missing from the civics texts in most schools today.
Early on, Plair makes clear that the Constitution is intended to define the powers and legitimate functions of the federal government. It is not, as many Americans misunderstand it, some kind of list of rights that citizens posses. As the Declaration of Independence states, just government is derived from the consent of the governed. The enumerated powers contained in the Constitution are those that the people consented to delegate to the new government of our republic. To describe the balance of power between the federal and state governments, Plair quotes James Madison from Federalist No. 45, page 260: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite."
This is crucial to understanding the nature of the constitutional republic created by our Founding Fathers. The rights of the people come from their Creator and the powers of government come from the people. Government has no say over what the people's rights are and it has no power beyond what the people freely choose to delegate.
The Framers were attempting to create a more solid and effective Union than existed under the Articles of Confederation, yet they wished to retain a fairly decentralized government and saw that division of political power as essential to the preservation of liberty. The new federal government would have the added strength to deal with external aggression while the typical American citizen would still interact mainly with their state government. The original Constitution did not limit the states except insofar as it required their respective governments to be republican in character.
Plair effectively describes the separate powers assigned to each branch of government, providing relevant contemporary examples and explaining some of the reasons the Framers chose to have a particular branch perform a certain role. While the division of power between the states and the federal government has eroded, with the balance shifting toward the federal government, the separation of powers and system of checks and balances within the central government continues to be a vital feature. For this reason, these sections of the book are likely to be more familiar to the average America civics student.
Plair does not ignore the fact that some of sought to diminish the Constitution's role in determining what activities the federal government may engage in. He writes that "there has developed an element within our governmental society that has, either deliberately or through individual ambition, slowly contaminated the very foundation of the Constitution." While he does not blame the entire legal profession (20 of 38 signers of the Constitution were lawyers), he identifies the source of this element as "too many attorneys who seek elected offices in all levels of government." Later, in his chapter on the amendment process established in Article V, Plair states that the judicial branch is making rather than interpreting the law and other branches are similarly acting outside the confines of the Constitution because of the "almost complete domination of our elected officials by the legal profession."
Yet Plair's explanation of why the disproportionate representation of attorneys within the political class would have any adverse impact on constitutionalism. Theoretically, those who are experts in the law ought to be the segment of society most committed to the idea of the rule of law. Plair argues that the Framers had intended a citizens' government composed of people from a variety of professions, not just those with a legal background. Implicitly, the high number of attorneys in public office has undermined constitutional limits on government out of Madisonian factionalism.
This is an interesting observation, yet it is probably also true that the very notion that law is something to be crafted by the experts is what led to the removal of legal and constitutional interpretation from other sectors of American life. Without a popular rather than purely legal consensus surrounding various constitutional interpretations, the public at large was not reaffirming constitutional limits on government. This also probably encouraged a proliferation of detailed laws and more skillful evasions of the strictures of the Constitution. It probably isn't a coincidence that Congress' leading constitutionalist, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), is a medical doctor.
Of course, Plair does not exclusively blame lawyers for the political tendency to try to downplay or ignore the Constitution. Prior to his discussion of the Bill of Rights, he lists those who endanger Americans' constitutional rights: " many are plain and simply corrupt politicians out to feather their own nests; others are socialists with weird ideas about a tight central government that controls every aspect of our lives from the cradle to the grave; many are just misguided individuals who follow others with what sounds' like a good idea; too many are in our colleges and universities who do not teach our system of government but their own version of how they believe the government should be; many are wealthy individuals who have a deep sense of guilt because of having so much wealth from ill gotten gains'; lastly, but certainly not the least destructive, are those who prey on the poor and needy, using gender, race and cultural differences to gain support by promising things they do not plan to deliver."
Do any of these people sound familiar?
Plair makes clear that the Bill of Rights is not intended as an exhaustive list. In fact, these first ten amendments were passed as an added guarantee to those worried by Anti-Federalist claims that the new Constitution gave the federal government too much power. The Bill of Rights explicitly protected certain rights while, through the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, clarifying that it did not confer to the central government any power not enumerated within the Constitution.
The informative discussion of the Constitution and its amendments in Three Score and Thirteen is followed by a discussion of contemporary issues. Plair tackles such important issues as health care, education, abortion, the role of religion in government, immigration, gun rights and foreign policy. All of them are approached from a perspective that is conservative but not doctrinaire, with an eye on the requirements of the Constitution and the original intent of the Framers. These criteria are too often lacking in discussions of important issues. Democrats and Republicans may debate competing plans for prescription drug benefits and homeland security, but questions of constitutional authority are seldom addressed.
Three Score and Thirteen also contains three appendixes. One contains brief biographies of those who signed the Constitution, another a glossary and the third is a list of acknowledgements and sources.
Three Score and Thirteen is a readable and informative presentation of the Constitution from an ordinary American with a clear love for that document and a desire to see his country governed according to it. It is an honest book written to encourage Americans to seek a freer society. Plair should be commended for his dedication to the traditions and principles of our Founding Fathers.
W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.
For ordering information on Three Score and Thirteen, visit
the author's web site here.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.