One of the more interesting and neglected political writings of the American Founding era was John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer,” which set out the grievances of the colonists against British rule in the decade before 1776. Dickinson was something of a moderate; although he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson in 1775 on the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, he abstained on voting for the Declaration of Independence the following year, hoping for reconciliation with Britain. He attended the Constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and defended the new Constitution in his own series of essays under the pen name Fabius.
This is prologue for bringing to everyone’s attention a new initiative conceived in a spirit similar to Dickinson’s letters: “Letters from an Ohio Farmer.” These letters are formally addressed to members of the 112th Congress but are also written for the engaged citizen. Many of the large class of new House members came to office in an election marked by an unprecedented populist fervor for constitutionalism. For that is partly what the Tea Party movement is–a populist constitutional movement–something James Madison would have thought at first glance not merely improbable, but an oxymoron, though on second thought he might have celebrated that the Tea Party represents the fulfillment of one of the Constitution’s larger purposes, which was to create a reverence among citizens for the principles of the nation.
Like the Federalist Papers, the intent of the Ohio Farmer’s letters is to “refine and enlarge the public view,” connecting our immediate controversies over the size and reach of government with enduring constitutional principles. While we argue about budget issues and other immediate policy matters, we should keep in the forefront the larger argument about how so-called “Progressive” government runs roughshod over the Constitution. Liberals occasionally make clear that they have no use for the restraints of the Constitution, and reduce its meaningful parts to the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, and the “general welfare” clauses of Article I. (Nope, liberals don’t really believe in the First Amendment any more–witness campaign finance regulation and their open hostility to religion–and while they like the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause, they long ago excised the Fifth Amendment’s property rights “takings” clause from their Cliff’s Notes version of the Constitution.) Recall Nancy Pelosi’s incredulous “Are you serious?” response to the question about the Constitutional authority for Obamacare, or more recently Rep. “Baghdad” Jim McDermott’s remark that “I’m tired of reading the Constitution and all of the silly things we’ve done for the last 13 weeks.”
So why Ohio, and who is the Farmer? It is a project of the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio (full disclosure: I’m a board member, visiting faculty member next fall, and a future contributor to the Farmer’s letters), and the Farmer is not one person but, like Publius, several contributing authors. And also like Publius, the authors are not partisans in the ordinary way, but are partisans of a different kind–partisans of the Constitution and its purposes. The general idea is to promote “a constitutional conversation in the broadest sense,” based on the observation that all previous fateful moments for our republic have involved debate over the Constitution. As the first letter reminds us:
[I]t seems to me that one of the great errors of recent decades is the supposition that constitutional questions are matters only for lawyers and judges to decide. The Constitution begins with “We, the people,” not “We, the judges.” It belongs to all the people, and to all three branches of government. Thinking about the Constitution is a responsibility of our citizenship as it is of your statesmanship.
So, as you go about your business as members of Congress, it seems altogether fitting and proper not only to show reverence for the Constitution–or to criticize such shows of reverence, if you think that better serves the Constitution–but to express your own constitutional views as they bear upon your business–our business–and to argue in public on behalf of those views. This would seem to be fully in keeping with the oath you recently took to support and defend the Constitution, an oath I expect you will take with solemn seriousness, and in honor of which you will daily strive to make your conduct as legislators conform to the limitations and principles of the Constitution, as you understand them.
Eight “Ohio Farmer” letters have been posted so far. Bookmark the site, “like” it on Facebook, and check back for future installments.