Customizing the US constitution

One of the features in the news stories surrounding militia groups like the ones led by Cliven Bundy’s brood is that the members all seem to carry in their pockets copies of the US constitution and quote from it, presumably to give more credence to their claims that they are the true followers of that founding document and that everyone who challenges them is acting illegally. In articles, you will frequently read passages like the following by Christopher Ketcham of his account of meeting with Cliven Bundy last year.(Harper’s Magazine, February 2015)

A cowboy bodyguard, with a pistol at his hip, hovered nearby as Bundy and I talked under the shade trees. I asked him to justify his claims to the Gold Butte allotment. He told me that the U.S. Constitution — a copy of which he kept in the breast pocket of his shirt, over his heart — held all the justification he needed. Under the Constitution, he said, there could be no such thing as federal public lands. Given this fact, the states, or better yet the counties, should control the land currently claimed by the U.S. government, and the entire federally managed commons should be abolished. He patted his breast and referred me to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17, which, he said, limits the amount of land that the federal government can own to ten square miles. (It does no such thing, though it does establish that Washington, D.C., should be limited to ten square miles.)[This was corrected to 100 square miles-MS]] Bundy went on citing the sacred document for the next thirty minutes, earnest and impassioned, as I tried and failed to interrupt.

It turns out that these Mormon constitutionalists are not carrying a plain old vanilla edition of constitution but one that is heavily annotated.

Search most photos of the armed occupiers who took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, and you’re liable to see a few common features. Beards, sure. Stiff-brimmed cowboy hats, too. And, in many shirt pockets, a tiny bound volume.

It’s the Constitution. But not the way most people read it.

It includes all 4,543 words inscribed by the Founding Fathers, with 18th century spelling and punctuation preserved, but the pocket Constitution held aloft by Ammon Bundy at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge contains some additional notations courtesy of an anti-communist conspiracy theorist named W. Cleon Skousen.

Skousen, who once accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a Soviet agent and whom Time magazine once labeled an “exemplar of the right-wing ultras,” pairs the original Constitutional text with quotes from Founding Fathers about the necessity of religion in governance.

Its message: The Founding Fathers intended the United States to be a Christian nation, beholden to a Christian god, and never intended the federal government to have any power over its people.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” it quotes John Adams in an addendum. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Constitutional scholars say some quotations are either deliberate alterations or taken out of context. The Adams quote, taken in its entirety from a 1798 letter to the Militia of Massachusetts, is an instruction to abide by morality, and seems to use “religion” in place of good deeds and words.

Other quotations center on the need for people to take power for themselves, and not let government lay too heavy a hand on their affairs.

It’s a message that rings clear to Cliven Bundy, who had a copy of the booklet during his 2014 standoff with federal agents on his Nevada ranch over unpaid grazing fees. His sons Ammon and Ryan brought it to the Oregon wildlife refuge.

“It’s something I’ve always shared with everybody and I carry it with me all the time,” Cliven Bundy told The Times on Thursday. “That’s where I get most of my information from. What we’re trying to do is teach the true principles of the proper form of government.”

Bundy gets his pocket Constitutions from a friend in Utah named Bert Smith, who buys 1 million at a time, storing them in a warehouse between distributions to Mormon groups, schools and soldiers overseas.

There seem to be a kind of cult-like worship of this document. “The Bundys and their supporters refer to the Constitution constantly: during speeches, of course, but also over bowls of soup at lunch or at campfires at night.”

Skousen died in 2006. It turns out that Ben Carson is also quite a fan for Skousen’s work, which should not come as a surprise.


  1. busterggi says

    Well heck, Mormons re-wrote the bible, why wouldn’t you expect them to re-write the Constitution?
    I’m surprised they haven’t re-written the koran just to claim Muslims are heretic Mormons.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Ben Carson is also quite a fan for Skousen’s work…

    However, we owe the current Skousen revival mostly to a non-candidate named Glenn Beck. Thanks, Glenn!

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