The Pocket Catechism Of The Constitution Of The United States, by Arthur J. Stansbury
The Liberty Alliance version of this book does not make plain the original author of this work, which required a bit of investigation to uncover, for unknown reasons, but this book is an updated version of a book that was originally published in 1828. At this time the founding fathers of the United States were dying off and the next generation after them sought to enshrine the ideals of those men in a civic religion that would not depend on the living memory of the Founding generation to endure. It should be noted that a catechism is a religious sort of writing where doctrinal questions are answered, and it is telling that many Conservatives think the United States constitution worth of reverence as a holy text, when it is in reality the result of human compromises that, however providential, is a human text and not a divine one.
This relates to a larger concern one has about works like this, as well as the people who promote them. There are really two different types of civic religion when it comes to the United States. There are those who venerate the Founding Fathers as demigods and consider the Constitution to be on a par with (or more important than) the laws given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. This is, of course, a form of idolatry, given that our nation’s founders were men and their laws were the results of the normal practices of human politics. On the other side, there are those who believe in a different civic religion of Progressivism and put their faith in the messianic state. That too is idolatry, but it is important to recognize that idolatry is present on both sides of the political spectrum in this issue. Likewise, those who are intoxicated with their own powers of god-like reason and intuition also need to be aware of putting themselves above their own proper level. None of us are exempt from these difficulties that a work like this confronts a godly reader who respects human authority but views it as accountable and subservient to God’s laws and ways.
As a catechism, this work is a set of scripted questions and answers for the openly avowed purpose of making the Constitution known in a form that would have been easily understood by a literate child of the 19th century. The questions begin with a straightforward examination of America’s colonial history, the impractical nature of direct democracy, and the superiority of republican government over tyrannical forms of government. The catechism then examines the problems of the Confederation period and tackles the separation of powers as well as practical issues of voting. Quite a few of the questions involve the Legislative branch, including the little-known functions of the officers of the legislature, as well as impeachment and conviction and disputes over elections, and the three exceptions to Congressional immunity from crimes. The catechism also comments on those powers that are reserved by the states and by the people at large as well as the powers of taxation and borrowing, as well as an honest recording of contemporary disputes about the powers of Congress and the thorny issues of war powers and habeas corpus. The catechism deals thoroughly with the question of what powers are forbidden to Congress and the States, as well as with the election and duties of the president and also the behavior of the courts and the vital importance of the trial by jury. Interestingly enough, there is a significant amount of attention paid to the issue of admitting new states. Unsurprisingly as well, the issue of constitutional amendments comes up toward the end of the book, with freedom of conscience given pride of importance as the reason for the passage of the First Amendment. In addition, the catechism speaks eloquently about the rights possessed by the accused, closing with an eloquent if brief defense of the often-neglected Tenth Amendment. After this, the book contains a brief conclusion that speaks of the United States Constitution in highly praiseworthy terms. My favorite quote from the book is here: “The virtuous citizen is the true noble.”
Let us ask ourselves why was the study of the United States constitution neglected from such an early part of our nation’s history, and what relevance does this have as far as those who may not be American or may not have a religious reverence for our nation’s founding. Even though the United States Constitution is a short document (and none of its amendments are very long either), there are a wide variety of people who have a strong dislike for reading law. This is as true of constitutions as it is of biblical law, which share their focus in describing the duties and freedoms of citizens as well as the responsibilities of leaders and the ceremonies of office and issues of crime and punishment. It is a heavy responsibility for the people to study up on their own duties as well as the duties of others. From early times people shirked these duties for reasons of laziness. Now, additional reasons, including the belief of many that we should not be restrained by ancient covenants and laws, have been added for a neglect of these matters. Maintaining the proper balance between a respect for godly laws, a principled opposition to ungodly ones, and a recognition of the authority but also the subservient nature of the state to God are all difficult matters. This book as a whole would appear to presuppose a Christian (and Protestant) worldview without fleshing out the place where the governments of God and man may conflict, apparently assuming (incorrectly) that the United States would always remain faithful to God’s ways. This is a mistaken assumption, but perhaps too deep a matter to teach to children.