An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Constitution and Its Relevance Today

Sep 16, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Professor Elder, I understand that there is a day in September specifically designed for the Constitution. How did this come about?

Constitution Day was created in 2004 through an amendment by Senator Robert Byrd to a spending bill in 2004. That amendment mandated that all publicly funded educational institutions provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on the day designated each year as Constitution Day.

2) I hear that you are part of a panel discussion. What is the topic, and what specifically will you be addressing?

This year our panel will be discussing the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment. I will be looking at the historical background of the amendment.

3) Just a fantasy type of question- when the writers of the Constitution were framing the document, how far ahead were they looking? Some certainly had a history background, some were forward thinkers, but how much of the Constitution actually planned for future events?

Many historians believe that the Founding Fathers, contrary to the popular belief, were not thinking that the Constitution would last forever as our blueprint of government. Indeed, when they wrote the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation were only 8 years old. But the Founding Fathers made a document that could be amended as times changed, which made it a lasting document.

4) As you know education is a much discussed term. Is there anything in the Constitution that gives the Federal government authority to tell states what they should teach, or what they must teach or how much they should pay teachers?

Public education was not on the agenda of the Founding Fathers. As a consequence, the Constitution says nothing about the subject.

Ironically, the old congress under the Articles of Confederation had passed the Northwest Ordinance, which established the principle of governmental aid to education.

5) One thing that continually comes up is ” the right to bear arms “. Can you discuss what the founding fathers had in mind when they inserted that phrase?

That is one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Constitution today, but ironically it wasn’t an issue until about 20 years ago. It was commonly understood that the Second Amendment referred only to militias–today’s National Guard. But various groups, primarily the National Rifle Association, launched a campaign in the early 1990s to redefine the right to bear arms. Now many people believe that the amendment confers an individual, rather than a collective, right to bear arms. I tend to believe that the Founding Fathers were speaking of the collective right rather than the individual right.

6) There is obviously some fiscal concerns in government right now- and a ” balanced budget ” amendment is often discussed. What specific parts of the Constitution have something to say about fiscal responsibility?

Here again, the Constitution is silent on an important subject. It simply says that the debt of the United States (we had a sizable one coming out of the Revolution) cannot be repudiated. It doesn’t say we shouldn’t have a debt, or that we should.

7) Today, we can communicate via e-mail and cell phone almost instantaneously. When the Constitution was written, how long was it before each of the colonies or states, if you will actually got a copy, and read it?

It was months before some areas got a look at the document. The slow nature of communication in the United States was one important reason why there was to be a four-month lag between the date of a presidential election and the date that a president would be inaugurated.

8) You and I both know there are some ” Constitutional scholars ” who know the relevant case law regarding the Constitution. How much does the average social studies teacher know and about how much should the average high school senior know?

The Constitution is a remarkably short document. It doesn’t take all that long to read, and doesn’t deal in concepts that are inordinately complex. I therefore think that it’s not asking too much for students to read the Constitution and study it in school.

9) What have I neglected to ask? You have covered the subject well!

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