– “Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No sire, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves.”
A political giant of the 19th century and a firm proponent of American principles, Daniel Webster spoke in the House of Representatives on December 9, 1814, concerning a proposed draft during the protracted War of 1812.
– “Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained that you may take children from their parents and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of the government may engage it?”
Daniel Webster adhered to the principle of strict constructionism, a notion that we must urgently recall today, in the face of absurd, devastating, and, indeed, Orwellian excesses of our Congress and our government, as the recent twin bills, S 89 and HR 163, which would reinstitute conscription across the board, demonstrate.
Strict constructionism, in essence, declares that anything not explicitly specified in the Constitution as a power of the U.S. Government is off-limits to said government. The government’s function is to protect the liberties enumerated in the Constitution, not to suspend them in the event of a declared “emergency” or a desire to “equalize the social classes.”
The foe of the Constitution, and the prime framework under which the draft could have an aura of legitimacy, is the theory of broad constructionism, or “construction,” as it was referred to in the jargon of the era. Broad constructionism, simply put, is the empowerment of the government with whatever authority is not explicitly forbidden to it by the Constitution. Webster illustrates the inextricable link between broad constructionism and tyranny:
– “It is their task to raise arbitrary powers, by construction, out of a plain written charter of National Liberty. It is their pleasing duty to free us of the delusion, which we have fondly cherished, that we are the subjects of a mild, free, and limited government, and to demonstrate, by a regular chain of premises and conclusions, that government possesses over us a power more tyrannical, more arbitrary, more dangerous, more allied to blood and murder, more full of every form of mischief, more productive of every sort and degree of misery than has been exercised by any civilized government, with a single exception, in modern times.”
Rather than being an instrument of the powers explicitly delegated to it by the people through the Constitution, the government becomes a means of imposing the greatest possible compulsion, the deprivation of life, upon every innocent American citizen of draft age. Rather than being a servant of the people, the government becomes their unconditional master. This is the folly of broad constructionism, and of the murderous draft it implies.
Webster eloquently explained that the Constitutional authority of Congress to call upon State militias in times of crisis does not justify the draft in any manner:
– “All the authority which this government has over the militia, until recently called into the ranks of an army, for the general purposes of war, under color of a militia power it has exercised. It now possesses the further power of calling into its service any portion of the militia of the States, in the particular exigencies for which the Constitution provides, and of governing them during the continuance of such service. Here its authority ceases.”
– “Congress having, by the Constitution, a power to raise armies, the Secretary contends that no restraint is to be imposed on the exercise of this power, except such as is expressly stated in the written letter of the instrument. In other words, that Congress may execute its powers, by any means it chooses, unless such means are particularly prohibited. But he general nature and object of the Constitution impose as rigid a restriction on the means of exercising power as could be done by the most explicit injunctions. It is the first principle applicable to such a case, that no construction shall be admitted which impairs the general nature and character of the instrument. A free constitution of government is to be construed upon free principles, and every branch of its provisions is to receive such an interpretation as is full of its general spirit. No means are to be taken by implication which would strike us absurdly if expressed. And what would have been more absurd than for this Constitution to have said that to secure the great blessings of liberty it gave to government uncontrolled power of military conscription?”
Moreover, the threat by the draft to the very liberties its advocates claim it to protect is self-evident through Webster’s speech:
– “Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it?”
– “It is enough to know that [the Constitution] was intended as the basis of a free government, and that the power contended for is incompatible with any notion of personal liberty. An attempt to maintain this doctrine upon the provisions of the Constitution is an exercise of perverse ingenuity to extract slavery from substance of a free government. It is an attempt to show, by proof and argument, that we ourselves are subjects of despotism, and that we have a right to chains and bondage, firmly secured to us and our children by the provisions of our government.”
Moreover, simply because the Constitution grants Congress the authority to raise armies, it does not give it a blank check of means to attain such an end:
– “Sir, in granting Congress the power to raise armies, the people have granted all the means which are ordinary and usual, and which are consistent with the liberties and security of the people themselves, and they have granted no others. To talk about the unlimited power of the government over the means to execute its authority, is to hold a language which is true only in regard to despotism. The tyranny of arbitrary government consists as much in its means as in its ends; and it would be a ridiculous and absurd constitution which should be less cautious to guard against abuses in the one case than in the other.”
The United States fought the War of 1812 in part as a response to the coercive impressment of American sailors into service to the British fleet. Webster points out that the draft fundamentally opposes a consistent implementation of this motive:
– “…even the impressments of seamen, for which many more plausible reasons may be given than for the impressments of soldiers, is repugnant to our Constitution.“
Today, a similar hypocrisy would be imposed by instituting the draft. We are fighting a War on Terror. The terrorists that oppose America do so by the taking of hostages, by the raiding of homes, by the deprivation of innocent lives. But would our government not decline to the same level if it takes hostage the young population of this country in servitude against their will, and if it promises to imprison, fine, or even kill them for “insubordination” while in captivity? Would our government not mimic terrorists by invading the homes of its own constituents and separating sons from parents, fathers from children, husbands from wives, and brothers from one another against their own plans and preferences? Would our government not inevitably eliminate some of the lives of innocent young boys (and girls, as far as this draft is concerned), where these individuals did not choose to risk their lives of their own will? Terrorists, too, do not kill the entirety of the population they harass, so how does a draft differ?
– “Who shall describe to you the horror which your orders of conscription shall create in the once happy villages of this country? Who shall describe the distress and anguish which they will spread over those hills and valleys, where men have heretofore been accustomed to labor, and to rest in security and happiness. Anticipate the scene, sir, when the class shall assemble to stand its draft, and to throw the dice for blood. What a group of wives and mothers and sisters, of helpless age and helpless infancy, shall gather round the theatre of this horrible lottery, as if the stroke of death were to fall from heaven before their eyes on a father, a brother, a son, or a husband. And in a majority of cases, sir, it will be the stroke of death.”
Why is the draft a “stroke of death?” The draft would force inexperienced, inadequately trained conscripts to fight, without the sufficient devotion of body and mind, against a foe of far superior abilities than theirs.
– “Fresh from the peaceful pursuits of life, and yet a soldier but in name, he is to be opposed to veteran troops, hardened under every scene, inured to every privation, and disciplined in every service. If, sir, in this strife he fall – if, while ready to obey every rightful command of government, he is forced from his home against right, not to contend for the defense of his country, but to prosecute a miserable and detestable project of invasion, and in that strife he fall ’tis murder.”
America must not contradict its founding principles in the methods it uses to confront terror, whether from the King of Britain or from Osama bin Laden and Muqtada al-Sadr.
– “A free government with arbitrary means to administer it is a contradiction; a free government without adequate provisions for personal security is an absurdity; a free government, with an uncontrolled power of military conscription, is a solecism, at once the most ridiculous and abominable that ever entered into the head of man.”
How does Webster frame the debate over whether or not to institute the draft? According to him, pivotal matters are at stake:
– “The question is nothing less than whether the most essential rights of personal liberty shall be surrendered, and despotism embraced in its worst form.”
– “A crisis has at last arrived, to which the course of things has long tended, and which may be decisive upon the happiness of present and future generations. If there be anything important in the concerns of men, the considerations which fill the present hour [the debate over draft legislation] are important.”
– “When the present generation of men shall be swept away, and that this government ever existed shall be a matter of history only, I desire that it may be known that you have not proceeded in your course unadmonished and unforewarned. Let it then be known, that there were those who would have stopped you, in the career of your measures, and held you back, as by the skirts of your garments, from the precipice over which you are now plunging and drawing after you the government of your country.”
Lastly, Webster poses a grim warning to the government of this country concerning the events to come if a draft is to come to fruition:
– “Laws, sir, of this nature can create nothing but opposition. If you scatter them abroad, like the fabled serpents’ teeth, they will spring up into armed men. A military force cannot be raised in this manner, but by the means of a military force. If the Administration has found that it cannot form an army without conscription, it will find, if it ventures on these experiments, that it cannot enforce conscription without an army. The government was not constituted for such purposes. Framed in the spirit of liberty, and in the love of peace, it has no powers which render it able to enforce such laws. The attempt, if we rashly make it, will fail; and having already thrown away our peace, we may thereby throw away our government.”
Present-day conscription advocates in Congress: you have been warned. Proceed with advocating the abominable draft legislation at your peril. You shall experience in response an uprising of freedom-lovers in this country which shall make the World War I and Vietnam War draft riots pale by comparison, for the advocates of individual liberty have the Constitution, History, Natural Law, and the Great Men of Past on their side. Toward the conclusion of his speech, Webster quotes the Bill of Rights of the State of New Hampshire, which he had represented: “the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.” Indeed, when this government assumes the wanton and arbitrary power to deprive its best constituents of their lives, it shall meet naught but the staunchest of resistance. If this draft becomes implemented, it shall be as much to blame for the loss of freedoms in America as bin Laden at his worst:
– “Those who cry out that the Union is in danger are themselves the authors of that danger. They put its existence to hazard by measures of violence, which it is not capable of enduring. They talk of dangerous designs against government, when they are overthrowing the fabric from its foundations. They alone, sir, are friends to the union of the States, who endeavor to maintain the principles of civil liberty in the country, and to preserve the spirit in which the Union was framed.”
Webster’s speech compellingly presented the case against a draft in 1814, and was able to prevent conscription from being enacted. Let us hope that today, our activism, in writing, speech, and personal choices will similarly preserve life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all Americans, for ages to come.