Wednesday, December 3, 2008


As an expert in the U.S. Constitution and America’s Founding, I thought I had lost the ability to be shocked by politically correct distortions of our history. Then I visited the new Capitol Visitor Center.

The just-completed Visitor Center, which opened yesterday, is a 580,000-square-foot cavern dug at the foot of the U.S. Capitol at a cost of $621 million (almost 9 times over budget).

The Capitol is a noble monument to American liberty. The neoclassical architecture is meant to be approached from afar. We are supposed to walk up vast flights of stairs to enter a magnificent rotunda, inspired to reflect on the grandeur of our self-governing republic.

Now the public will approach the Capitol underground and enter, mole-like, through the basement. What Congress has arranged for the public to be taught before they get in is a scandal.

Designed to provide “an enhanced educational experience,” the Visitor Center allows guests to make online reservations before spending time at two gift shops, enjoying a 530-seat restaurant, visiting any of 26 restrooms or watching an orientation film in one of two theaters, all in air-conditioned comfort.

The “educational” part is the Exhibition Hall, the theme of which is “E Pluribus Unum - Out of Many, One.” The etching in marble initially referred to that phrase as the nation’s motto. Now, however, that etching is covered by a bad plaster job, because … well, “E Pluribus Unum” is not the nation’s motto. Our actual motto, “In God We Trust,” is notably absent, along with other references to faith.

Take how the exhibit treats the Northwest Ordinance, the 1787 document that signaled the beginning of America’s westward expansion. It’s selectively quoted to encourage education - carefully shorn of its opening clause: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”

But what bothered me the most when I toured the Visitor Center at the request of Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican - who raised a warning on this politically correct outrage - is what it does to the Constitution.

I always thought (because it says so) that the Constitution was about the powers delegated to government by the people, who possess individual rights. Article I begins: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” A written agreement on the extent (and limits) of those powers is critical to a constitution that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed,” as the Declaration of Independence prescribes.

“If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare,” James Madison wrote, “the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”

Wrong, Mr. Madison. The Constitution, according to the new Visitor Center, isn’t a list of powers but “aspirations” that Congress is expected to define and realize. I guess those are like the rights the Supreme Court, in the 1960s, began discovering in “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution.

What “aspirations,” you ask? There are six:

(1) Unity (as in “a more perfect Union” in the Preamble, which grants Congress no power).

(2) Freedom (based on the First Amendment, which begins, by the way, with “Congress shall make no law… .”).

(3) Common defense (from Article I, Section 8).

(4) Knowledge (authority to promote public education, support arts and sciences, fund extensive research).

(5) Exploration (to justify funding “curiosity and boldness.” Both Nos. 4. and 5. come from a convoluted reading of the clause granting Congress the power to issue patents.)

(6) General welfare (found in Article I, Section 8’s restriction of the taxing power, but taken here to mean “improving transportation, promoting agriculture and industry, protecting health and the environment, and seeking ways to solve social and economic problems”).

See for yourself. The full text of the script and orientation film is online at

This exhibit is Congress’ temple to liberals’ “living Constitution,” the eternal font of lawmakers’ evolving mandate to achieve the nation’s ideals. There are no fixed meanings in their version, only open-ended “aspirations.” The Constitution is an empty vessel, to be adapted to the times, as required to bring change. It means nothing - or anything.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the exhibit details the unfolding of liberal progress and the rise of modern administrative government. Everything is about movement away from America’s sins (slavery, treatment of Indians, Vietnam) toward congressionally led enlightenment (direct election of senators, voting rights, the New Deal, Medicare).

The education experience concludes by quoting Sen. Robert La Follette, the great progressive reformer from Wisconsin: “America is not made. It’s in the making.”

According to this distorted view, we are a pluribus only until Congress makes us an unum by remaking the Constitution in its own image.

Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation (, is executive editor of “The Heritage Guide to the Constitution.”

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