Constitution Sunday: Luther Martin, “The Genuine Information,” II

Luther Martin, “The Genuine Information,” II

Maryland Gazette (Baltimore), January 1, 1788

Every form of government known to human history has been presented—on occasion—with the possibility of revolution or, perhaps euphemistically, a drastic reform of that government’s structure. While the causes may vary for a revolution or reform, the discontent that precedes it is universal: massive parts of the citizenry feel disillusioned with the government’s ability or will to act in the citizens’ best interest. It is at that point that the defects in the government are most evident, and it is at that point that citizens decide whether those defects can and should be corrected or whether fundamental change is necessary.

Luther Martin wrote in the Maryland Gazette that states and citizens would do best to correct “such errors and defects as experience should have brought to light” as it creates “a prospect at length of obtaining as perfect a system of federal government[] as the nature of things would admit.” The alternative, according to Martin, is to consider “ourselves as master-builders, too proud to amend our original government,” and to “demolish it entirely, and to erect a new system of our own” which may, after “a short time” show itself just “as defective as the old, perhaps more so.” Then, if that new system should reveal its defects, another set of master-builders may, “instead of amending and correcting” that government’s defects, “demolish that entirely, and bring forward a third system, that also might soon be found no better than either of the former.” It is at that point that “we might always remain young in government, and always suffering the inconveniences of an incorrect, imperfect system.”

Well over 200 years later, Martin’s point remains true: there are two options when government is failing or appears to be failing: reform that government or entirely reinvent it. Caution is advised before reinventing that government. As much as the faults in the system become glaring, and as much as discontent builds, those aggrieved must ask themselves where change is needed. If the structure of the government, at its most general level, remains effective and true to its purpose, then perhaps that structure need not be changed. Instead, perhaps it is more advisable that reformers target the specific components of the structure that are creating discontent. Replacing systems in their entirety only encourages power struggles—either generation by generation or ideology by ideology—whereas correcting the errors and defects in the system, or debating those errors and defects, is more likely to lead to the changes that will satisfy the aggrieved. Over a short period of time, with wise and informed people in power, the replacement of systems may be sustainable, but in the long term, the probability increases that those less wise and less informed may rise to power and implement a system of government that runs contrary to the interests of ordinary citizens.

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