Can Constitutional Literacy Save Us From the Drift to Tyranny? 

Some of us are old enough to remember the Andy Griffith Show (1960-68, CBS), including the hilariously revealing November 1963 episode, where Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) attempts to recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory.

Showing his 8th-grade history book to Mayberry town Sheriff Andy Taylor, he says with characteristic bluster, “There’s things right there in that book I learned that I still remember to this day.” Turning the book’s pages to the Constitution, he says, “We had to memorize the Preamble, and I still remember it.” He then starts to demonstrate in a raised voice: “Constitution of the United States.” Pausing, his mind obviously gone completely blank, he pleads, “Why don’t you just give me the first word, and I’ll know the rest.”

Andy: “Okay. We. . . .”

Barney: “We. . . . We? Are you sure?” Uncomfortable pause, then in loud voice: “WE. . . .” Another clueless pause.

Andy: “The. . . .”

Barney: “The.” Clueless pause. “We, the. . . .” Uncomfortable, clueless pause.

Andy, through pursed lips: “Ppp . . . People.”

Barney: “We, the people . . . We, the people (louder) . . . We, the people (even louder). . . .” Head agonizingly buried in hands.

This goes on for interminable minutes, with Andy patiently saying each word, Barney then painfully repeating, until the end when Andy finishes the last words himself: “. . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” At which point, Barney smugly states, “I got it. You read something, you learn it.”

“Humor,” Mark Twain told us, “is the good-natured side of a truth.” To laugh at Barney Fife’s half-century-old predicament is to look into the mirror today. If you are largely ignorant of the substantive content of the Constitution, you aren’t alone. Even those who, by law, are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution – members of the U.S. military and federal civil servants, for example – are highly unlikely to have reflected on its content since they raised their right hand many years ago. That should alarm us, not reassure us, as we face the prospect ahead of the possible return to office of Donald Trump. Constitutional literacy – and the associated will to make the provisions of this landmark guiding document a reality – could be our only salvation if that eventuality comes to pass.

The Constitution’s Preamble that Barney Fife muffed should command our primary attention above all else. That seems counterintuitive, since the preamble to any document is typically little more than cosmetic rhetorical window dressing for the substance expected to follow.

That isn’t the case here, though, for this Preamble is what we might call America’s Security Credo. Judged collectively, the precepts enumerated in the Preamble – justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, liberty for ourselves for all time – are what make us secure where they are present, insecure where they are absent.

But it is the prefatory phrase that matters most: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.” We (all of us) are, by design, a nation; a nation of laws; a nation of immigrants, E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”); a People born of many peoples, all united into one by a common identity, a common set of values; a “melting pot” (with due apologies to “tossed salad” advocates) of differences assimilated into a unified whole as Americans.

In the face of a Trump return to office, national unity will come at a premium. Unity – of purpose, of effort, of action – is a distinctly strategic concept known to, but not uniformly achieved, by practitioners of statecraft, domestic and international. When those in authority exercise power – to get their way, to get what they want, to elicit deference from others – their ability to do so is a function of not only the wherewithal at their disposal but also the consensual will of the people they presume to represent and lead. National will and national unity, undergirded by the glue of social cohesion, are thus conjoined.

Many have been the calls by figures of note over time for national unity and the Union of our federal republic. In his 1796 Farewell Address (drafted by Alexander Hamilton, delivered in written form, rather than orally), George Washington issued a clarion call that inveighed against the self-serving factions that James Madison had previously critiqued in Federalist 10:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the perceptive early 19th-century French observer of Democracy in America, would later (1835-1840) observe: “It is clear that if each citizen [in American democracy], as he becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable in isolation of preserving his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality.”

Even before he became President (1858), Abraham Lincoln would famously claim: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Then, as President, his steadfast aim throughout the Civil War was to preserve or restore the Union, even to the extreme of stating: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Today, America is more divided than it has ever been since the Civil War, a state of affairs fed by and exploited by Trump to the utmost. His strategy is to divide and conquer, to pit us Little People and our many demographic, ideological, and cultural differences against one another, so that only he wins, while we are forever at one another’s throats.

Think of the innumerable forms of unity or disunity that characterize us as a people: race and ethnicity, gender, age, social class, religion, sexual orientation, domicile, political affiliation, ideological orientation, profession, among others. A case could be made that the degree of social affinity between and among us – from intolerance to tolerance to empathy to respect to emulation – is more or less directly proportional to the level of intellectual development we are able and willing to achieve – from ignorance to awareness to knowledge to understanding to wisdom. In this sense, our ability to achieve and maintain unity in the face of impending tyranny is, at root, an intellectual enterprise – notwithstanding the enduring embrace of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which historian Richard Hofstadter reminded us is our chosen lot 60 years ago.

Now, reconsider the many grievances (27 of them) our Founding Fathers levied against their oppressor at the time, King George III, in the Declaration of Independence; to wit:

+ “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.”

+ “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

+ “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.”

This led the Founders to conclude: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Does this sound familiar?

Our Founders reacted to the tyranny they were already living under with ideas, but ideas abetted by muskets and artillery pieces. Today, we must act preventively or preemptively against tyranny that could yet be visited upon us, also with ideas, but our weapons must take the form of aggressive civic engagement – votes and demonstrations – to forestall a hostile takeover of our institutions, the attendant demise of democracy, and the dissolution of the Union. That would be an inexcusable, unforgivable self-inflicted strategic defeat that would eliminate America’s standing as a “shining city on a hill” and a so-called Great Power.

If there is a case to be made that preserving national unity, democracy, and the state of the Union in the face of impending tyranny is a fundamentally intellectual enterprise, then too must it be a totally grassroots popular effort designed to compensate for the massive failings of representative democracy in the Trump era.

The elitist temperament of America’s Founders that consigned us to a representative form of democracy was given perhaps its most powerful expression by Hamilton:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well born; the other, the mass of the people. . . . The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second.”

But wherever there was Hamilton, there also was his eternal nemesis Jefferson, who made the case for popular rule:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.

In normal times, when even the most self-serving politicians have operated within the institutional imperatives and limits of the Constitution, the Hamiltonian perspective has managed to serve us reasonably well. But the implicit premise of representative democracy, that the best of us govern the rest of us, has shown itself hugely ill-equipped to stand up to the tyranny Trump has shown us and promised us. Where courage, integrity, and selflessness on the part of our representatives are missing, we have no alternative but to turn to ourselves.

One can’t help here but be reminded of French General Ferdinand Foch’s message to his superior, General Joseph Joffre, during World War I’s First Battle of the Marne: “Hard pressed on my right; my left is in retreat. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views he expresses are his own.