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Why Can’t “Constitutional Conservatives” Get the Constitution Right?

May 23, 2011

On May 23, Think Progress caught Republican Presidential Candidate Herman Cain lecturing Americans on their need to “reread the Constitution” -- all the while misquoting the document, himself.  During his campaign announcement on Saturday, Cain admonished those “people [who]…don’t want us to go by the Constitution,” pointing out that “there’s a little section in there that talks about ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  He went on to claim that the Constitution also “says when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”  WATCH (via Think Progress):

These are immortal words, spoken by our founders, but they do not appear anywhere in the Constitution.  They come from the Declaration of Independence.  And it is remarkable to note that Cain is just the latest “Constitutional Conservative” who can’t seem to keep these two founding documents straight.

In November 2009, House Majority Leader John Boehner claimed to be quoting the Preamble to the Constitution he was waving around when he actually cited the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.  In March of that same year, in his nationally-televised, keynote speech to the CPAC conference, Rush Limbaugh made the exact same mistake:

This may seem like a harmless, if thoroughly embarrassing, error by Cain, Limbaugh and Boehner.  After all, the Declaration and the Constitution are both essential founding-era documents.  But these documents are very different.  The Declaration, penned in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, was a revolutionary document, designed to incite the colonists to support the War of Independence against England.  The Constitution, written in Philadelphia eleven momentous years later, was a far more sober document, designed to structure government, not incite rebellion.   It’s hardly a surprise, therefore, that conservatives like Cain, seeking to strike a connection to the Tea Party voters, turn to the more revolutionary Declaration, not the more sober, government-empowering Constitution.

What’s not harmless is the effort by “constitutional conservatives” to claim the Constitution without having any idea what’s in the document.  Recently, CAC challenged a Tea Party group that wants to go into our schools this fall and teach our children about the Constitution to find a single reputable historian to support its account of our Constitution’s principles.  Here’s a challenge to Herman Cain: know what’s in the Constitution before you lecture Americans about their need to read it.