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Woodrow Wilson: Constitutional Government in the United States I
时间:2012-3-30 下午 11:19:55,点击:0

Woodrow Wilson: Constitutional Government in the United States I

Woodrow Wilson

What is Constitutional Government?

My object in the following lectures is to examine the government of the United States as a constitutional system as simply and directly as possible, with an eye to practice, not to theory.

And yet at the very outset it is necessary to pause upon a theory. The government of the United States cannot be intelligently discussed as a constitutional system until government; and the answer to that question is in effect a theory of politics.

By a constitutional government we, of course, do not mean merely a government conducted according to the government with which our thoughts deal at all has a definite constitution, written or unwritten, and we should not dream of speaking of all modern government as "constitutional." Not even when their constitutions are written with the utmost definiteness of formulation. The constitution of England, the most famous of constitutional governments and, in a sense, the mother of them all, is not written, and the constitution of Russia might be without changing the essential character of the Czars power. A constitutional government is one whose powers have been adapted to the interests of its people and to the maintenance of individual liberty. That, in brief, is the conception we constantly make use of, but seldom analyze, when we speak of constitutional governments.

Roughly speaking, constitutional government may be said to have had its rise at Runnymede, when the barons of England exacted Magna Carta of John; and that famous transaction we may take as the dramatic embodiment alike of the theory and of the practice we seek. The barons met John at Runnymede, a body of armed men in counsel, for a parley which, should it not end as they wished it to end, was to be but a prelude to rebellion. They were not demanding new laws or better, but a righteous and consistent administration of laws they regarded as already established, their immemorial birthright as Englishmen. They had found John whimsical, arbitrary, untrustworthy, never to be counted on to follow any fixed precedent or limit himself by any common understanding, a lying master who respected no mans rights and thought only of having his own will; and they came to have a final reckoning with him. And so they thrust Magna Carta under his hand to be a signed, - a document of definition, which must henceforth be respected, of practices until now indulged in which must be given over and remedied altogether, of ancient methods too long abandoned to which the king must return; and their proposal was this: -Give us your solemn promise as monarch that this document shall be your guide and rule in all your dealings with us, attest that promise by your sign manual attached in solemn form, admit certain of our number a committee to observe the keeping of the covenant, and we are your subjects in all peaceful form and obedience; -refuse, and we are your enemies, absolved of our allegiance and free to choose a king who will rule us as he should.-Swords made uneasy stir in their scabbards, and John had no choice but to sign. These were the only terms upon which government could be conducted among Englishmen.

That was the beginning of constitutional government, and shows the nature of that government in its simplest form. There at Runnymede a people came to an understanding with its government which we now call "constitutional," ’ the ideal of a government conducted upon the basis of a definite understanding, if need be of a formal pact, between those who are to submit to it and those who are to conduct it, with a view to making government an instrument of the general welfare rather than an arbitrary, self-willed master, doing what it pleases, - and particularly for the purpose of safeguarding individual liberty.

The immortal service of Magna Carta was its formulation of the liberties of the individual in their adjustment to the law. The day of Magna Carta was not a day in which men spoke of political liberty or acted upon set programs of political reform; but the history of constitutional government in the modern world is the history of political liberty, the history of all that men have striven for in the reform of government, and one has the right to expect to get out of it at least a workable conception of what liberty is. Certainly the documents of English history and the utterances of the greater public men on both sides of the water supply abundant material for the definition. "If any one ask me what a free government is, I reply, it is what the people think so," said Burke, going to the heart of the matter. The Declaration of Independence speaks to the same effect. We think of it as a highly theoretical document, but except for its assertion that all men are equal it is not. It is intensely practical, even upon the question of liberty. It names as among the "inalienable rights" of man the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as does the Virginia constitution and many another document of the time; but it expressly leaves to each generation of men the determination of what they will do with their lives, what they will prefer as the form and object of their liberty, in what they will seek their happiness. Its chief justification of the right of the colonists to break with the mother country is the assertion that men have always the right to determine for themselves by their own preferences and their own circumstances whether the government they live under is based upon such principles or administered according to such forms as are likely to effect their safety and happiness. In brief, political liberty is the right of those who are governed to adjust government to their own needs and interests.

That is the philosophy of constitutional government. Every generation, as Burke said, sets before itself some favorite object which it pursues as the very substance of its liberty and happiness. The ideals of liberty cannot be fixed on the generation; only its conception can be, the large image of what it is. Liberty fixed in unalterable law would be no liberty at all. Government is a part of life, and, with life, it must change, alike in its objects and in its practices; only this principle must remain unaltered, - this principle of liberty, that there must be the freest right and opportunity of adjustment. Political liberty consists in the best practicable adjustment between the power of the government and the privilege of the individual; and the freedom to alter the adjustment is as important as the adjustment itself for the case and progress of the affairs and the contentment of the citizen.

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