For the past two-thirds of its history, the United States has chosen this day to celebrate and give thanks for the blessings and liberties of its land. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the troops and a war-weary nation exactly one week after the president immortalized their sacrifices at Gettysburg.
Throughout the next century, which came to be known as the American century, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving with the unshakable belief that they were passing on to their children a future full of promise and liberty. There were hardships and sacrifices aplenty in the Great Depression and two great wars, and there was strife as our country learned to honor in practice the principles that Lincoln and so many of his countrymen gave their lives to uphold. These trials tested — but did not break — the optimism and gratitude commemorated by this holiday. As Ronald Reagan later reminded us, America’s best days were yet to come.
Perhaps because Americans were willing to endure hardships and challenges, they were able to honor the legacies of their forefathers to pass on to their children a nation better than the one they inherited. Ours was a young country, unique in history, united in spirit and principle, but diverse in every trait that defined nations before it. Time and time again, America made sacrifices, even for other nations far beyond its shores.
The United States continues to face serious challenges from foreign countries. It seems that it will always be that way. At the turn of this century, however, few could have foreseen that we would soon face one of the most serious internal challenges to our liberties since we secured them under Lincoln, and that the wound would be self-inflicted. In 12 short years, the federal government “of, by and for the people” has mortgaged the liberties of future generations of Americans to preserve its powers and prerogatives over the people.
The government largely maintains itself today, not with the resources that its citizens are willing to commit to it, but by borrowing money against future generations and printing more money to sustain that practice in the short term. No rational person believes government as it exists now is sustainable in the long term. Government expenditures now amount to a quarter of the economy, up significantly from historical levels. It now borrows nearly 40 cents for every dollar it spends. In the next 10 years, the federal debt is likely to approach, if not exceed, $25 trillion. The government will be effectively bankrupt. Yet there is no end in sight to its profligacy, and the gross debt of the government already exceeds the size of the entire economy. The numbers are so large and growing so fast that they defy comprehension. Just imagine that the federal government already owes more than $1,000 for every year the universe has been in existence.
The liberties secured for all Americans by Lincoln are enshrined in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment protects Americans from involuntary servitude, including for the repayment of debt, or peonage. The 14th Amendment prohibits future generations from repudiating the debt of the federal government. Yet our future generations are trapped, saddled with the burden of a crushing debt they did not create. In effect, the debt we are accumulating today will consign future generations to being peons to today’s profligate government, making them its indentured vassals. No one would have imagined that the noble goals of these two amendments could be brought into such conflict.
The lesson is that modern-day Washington and its politicians have proved that they cannot be trusted with the financial power they have arrogated. Practically speaking, Washington already has sailed off a financial cliff. A grand bargain to avert the automatic end-of-year corrections will do nothing to fix that. Counting the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, we have had four grand bargains on deficit reduction: in 1985, 1987, 1990 and 1993. None could or did change the real structural problem in Washington, which is that it cannot be trusted with the people’s funds.
The speaker of the House called for a vote in Congress on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. What we have learned, however, is that Washington’s rulers will never agree to limit their financial powers. Those powers not only contribute to their power, but they also enhance their personal fortunes. So the crony economy of the nation’s capital will continue until the people themselves step in to correct it. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution provides a mechanism for the states to do just that. With the petitions of 34 states, they can convene a constitutional convention for the purpose of proposing a balanced budget amendment to restore, preserve and protect the liberties of all Americans, present and future, from the financial tyranny of a profligate federal government.
To date, 32 state governments have submitted petitions for a constitutional convention to draft a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Two more are needed. The states themselves would appoint the delegates to the convention, and the executive branch would play no role whatsoever in the process. This is as it should be. The nation’s financial security and the liberties of future generations of Americans require a serious and sober effort, free from the rhetoric of political pandering, so that the states can take an uncompromised approach to the task of preserving limited and responsible federal government in this blessed land.
While a convention to amend the Constitution is a serious step that has not been taken, these are serious challenges. It was the imminent likelihood of a convention to amend the Constitution to provide for the direct election of senators that forced Congress to its senses, when it proposed what became the 17th Amendment. A convention may be required to force Congress to its senses once again, or else the states must act to take government back and preserve the liberties that are this nation’s true heritage.
As our nation turns its attention to giving thanks for the blessings we have inherited, let us not forget the work we need to do to ensure that future generations of Americans can enjoy the same opportunities and blessings, and celebrate them as we do today. Lincoln proclaimed this holiday, and we should not forget his legacy. The two go hand in hand and cannot be separated.
Warren L. Dean Jr. is a partner at Thompson Coburn law firm and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.