Q: Would your honor’s advice be to get a part or other countries’ constitutions as a model, or should we develop our own draft?
A: You should certainly be aided by all the constitution-writing that has gone on since the end of World War II. I would not look to the US constitution, if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa. That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights [and] had an independent judiciary. It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done. Much more recent than the U.S. Constitution: Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world? I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.
It’s unfortunate that Justice Ginsburg didn’t elaborate on her comments, but her past statement that Justices “are becoming more open to comparative and international law perspectives” is troubling.
In reality, our Constitution will not work in Egypt, but Justice Ginsburg does not know why or is afraid to say why. It’s not that there’s a problem with our Constitution. The problem is with the majority of the Egyptian people and their worldview. Consider the first words of the Constitution: “We the people of the United States.” Now try it this way: “We the people of Egypt.” It’s immediately apparent that until the Egyptians change, NO constitution will work.
Our second president, John Adams, understood the relationship between morality and Constitution writing:
“Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”1
What made our Constitution work was the worldview of the people that framed it. They were not perfect men, but they understood that in order for a constitution to work, the majority of the people had to be self-governing. That is not the case in Egypt. Compare the days of rioting after a soccer match where 74 people were killed and 250 injured with the end of our Super Bowl.
The President and his liberal compatriots were excited to see the Arab Spring bring democracy to a nation like Egypt. There is no doubt that the presidency of Hosni Mubarak was corrupt and needed to be changed. Riots in the streets don’t breed confidence. It would be like putting the worst elements of the Occupy movement in control of America. Not a good idea.
There is an old saying that is mostly true: Be careful what you wish for because you may actually get it. Democracy does not always get you the results you want.
There’s a lot of history to show that revolutions do not bring about good government. The war we had with Great Britain was a war for independence not a revolution. Thirteen governments defended themselves against a foreign aggressor. The colonies were already self-governing. The character of the people made all the difference.
Simon Bolívar was called the “George Washington of South America.” He was a student and admirer of the principles that led to America’s War for Independence as well as a critic of the French Revolution.
Bolívar would be described today as a classical “liberal” in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson who defended limited government and a free market economic system.
In his construction of the Bolivian Constitution, he studied the U.S. Constitution and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Bolívar’s many speeches and writings show that he was an advocate of limited government, the separation of powers, freedom of religion, property rights, and the rule of law.
At first, Bolívar believed that South America could be governed as well as the United States if the people would adopt the principles of the U.S. Constitution. His attempts failed because the people were the problem. Our Constitution says nothing about personal character. It is not a document that carries a moral code. These things came from outside the Constitution and were necessary for it to work.
Bolívar’s attempts at governing left him an “exhausted and disillusioned idealist” because the character of the people would not change. He considered them to be ungovernable. He understood that ideas and character matter more than governmental forms. Good self-government precedes good civil government.
Bolivar died an “exhausted and disillusioned idealist” at the age of forty-seven. Shortly before he died, he declared that Latin America was ungovernable. Revolutions were not enough. When the bloodshed was over, then what? “He who serves a revolution,” he said, “ploughs the sea.”2
He was discouraged with how the people expressed their new freedoms. Some months before his death Bolivar wrote: “There is no good faith in [Latin] America, nor among the nations of [Latin] America. Treaties are scraps of paper; constitutions, printed matter; elections, battles; freedom, anarchy; and life a torment.”3
The same can be applied to Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.
- Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, October 11, 1798, in Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull (New York, 1848), 265–266. [↩]
- Edward Coleson, “The American Revolution: Typical or Unique?,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution, ed. Gary North, 3:1 (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 1976), 176–177. [↩]
- Quoted in Edward Coleson, “The American Revolution: Typical or Unique?,” 177. [↩]