March 23, 2010

Principled patriots who seek to support and defend the Constitution often point their ire in the direction of the elected officials who represent them—those who have taken an oath promising that they themselves will be faithful defenders of the document. While this is expected and entirely appropriate, one wonders how often such patriots seek to apply the same rigorous standard to themselves.

In truth, it is hard for a single individual to effectively support and defend the Constitution. Our collective actions, whether through activism, the ballot box, or educational efforts, can and do meet this standard. But what can one single person do in holding himself accountable to the same standard he applies to politicians?

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One opportunity to do so presents itself at least once each decade, when the federal government conducts the United States Census. Authorized by the Constitution, the census was mandated as stipulated in Article I Section 2:

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

The purpose of this enumeration is made clear by the preceding language which describes the apportionment of direct taxes and representation in Congress. In order to ensure that the nation’s representation would remain accurate, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention included this provision. The first census occurred just one year after the Constitution was ratified, in 1790, under the direction of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Only for that and the succeeding census did the government strictly adhere to its constitutional authority; in later decades, questions were asked about manufacturing, social issues, mental health, employment, income information, and other unauthorized inquiries into the lives of individual Americans.

Describing this scope creep, the Census Bureau’s own website explains:

The first censuses in 1790 and 1800 were “simple” counts of population that fulfilled the U.S. Constitution’s requirement. While later enumerations met this constitutional mandate, they also gathered greater detail about the nation’s inhabitants. As a result, the census has grown from a “head count” to a tool enabling us to better understand the nation’s inhabitants, their pursuits and activities, and needs.

Note how the Census Bureau sees its role: they view all the additional questions outside of the Constitution’s mandate not as overstepping their authority, but fulfilling a mandated obligation, and going a step further to provide helpful information about the nation’s inhabitants. This would be like the President changing his term of office from four years to thirty, and defending the action by noting that he has “met this constitutional mandate” of four years, and simply added on twenty-six years to the end. “As a result”, he might say, “the office of president has grown from an always-changing ‘elected position’ to a more stable one enabling us to better focus on the nation’s inhabitants, their pursuits and activities, and needs.” I need not explain the absurdity of both of these examples.


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