"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." — Preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America, Sept. 17, 1787.
In case you missed it, as I did, Monday was the 225th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America.
11 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and after much debate, some very heated and cantankerous, and publishing of papers and opinions by the Federalists and Anti-Federalists our Framers finally reached a solid compromise and adopted a Constitution for their newly independent nation.
For 11 years the nation had been living under the Articles of Confederation, a document that loosely tied the thirteen colonies together. Our Founders realized that we needed a basic law and a formula for governance that would give a federal government certain powers and a formula for governance while retaining all powers not enumerated within the Constitution to the people and the states. This is called Federalism and its most eloquent and forceful advocate was James Madison.
John Adams got everything right except the date. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence (a document he assisted Jefferson with in the writing) he wrote his wife Abigail:
“It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
Americans commemorate the Declaration of Independence on July 4th and rightly so. But there's certainly room on the calendar for another celebration, even if a somewhat subdued one. Even on my Microsoft Outlook calendar, a calendar that lists most holidays and days of importance there is no mention of the anniversary of the adoption of our Constitution.
Monday, Sept. 17, marked the 225th anniversary of the signing of the nation's second great founding document, the Constitution that provides Americans with limited government and a balance of powers. As Abraham Lincoln stated; The Declaration was the apple of gold set in the silver frame of the Constitution.” Constitution Day never became a day off from work, and it's hardly marked with pomp and circumstance. That's fitting, though. Unlike the Declaration, the Constitution never aimed to stir hearts or encourage uprising — quite the opposite.
The Constitution was drafted more than 11 years after the Declaration. The United States had won independence but was struggling under the weak Articles of Confederation. The Founding Fathers wanted to draft a document that would provide an effective but carefully limited federal government. Through a series of compromises, and they did just that.
They designed three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — that would check each other. If one tried to usurp too much power, the others would have an interest in bringing it back into line. Just as competition brings down prices in economics, competition would tend to keep any particular branch of government from acquiring too much power. This was Madison’s belief that contrary to the writings of Montesquieu we could have a republic based upon federalism where ambition could counter ambition thus balancing the influence of the passions of a pure democracy and influenced by something he called “factions” It was Madison who stated in Federalist Paper No. 10.; “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. “
Appropriately, the most powerful branch would be the legislative. That's where all laws would be written and where all spending bills would originate. So the Constitution further divides Congress into two branches. In the House of Representatives, every member would stand for re-election every two years. This lower House would be most influenced by the passions of the day. In the Senate, six-year terms would promote more deliberation. These two forks of the same branch would provide further checks, preventing the rash use of Congress' great power to succumb to factious passions of the people.
The Constitution has held up well for more than two centuries, with only occasional modifications (the 27 amendments) through the years. Of course, people used to be a bit more serious about the idea that the Constitution said what it meant and meant what it said. Any 21st-century celebration of the Constitution should take note that the country is no longer keeping faith with its constitutional principles.
Today, most "laws" actually are rules and regulations enacted by bureaucrats and masterminds in government agencies, not statutes passed by elected lawmakers. Even when Congress does pass legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law or ObamaCare, lawmakers leave many blanks and expect rule-makers to fill them in. We can thank the progressive movement spawned by Theodore Roosevelt and refined by Woodrow Wilson for this deviation from the Constitution and our founding principles.
That means the bureaucracy, peopled with federal "experts," essentially exists as an unelected fourth branch of government. It has limited accountability to the actual elected branches — and no accountability to voters. That's not right. Lawmakers need to reclaim their constitutional role.
So should judges. The founders wrote that the judiciary would be the "least dangerous branch," in part because judges wouldn't have the ability to enforce their rulings without support from the other two branches. But today's liberal judges often enact laws rather than interpret them. Fealty to the Constitution would require judges to return to their traditional role and stop legislating from the bench.
Finally, there's the presidency. As chief executive, a president has crucial responsibilities. But presidents lack the power to enact laws or to determine that some laws won't be enforced. Our constitutional framework of limited government requires a president who will actively use his granted powers but also recognize the strict limits on those powers.
On Constitution Day we should honor the framers and respect their work by changing America's course — and returning to our constitutional roots. But how do we that?
I believe there are ten steps we can take to bring this Republic back into line with the Constitution and the thinking of our Framers.
Read it. The Constitution is just a few pages long. Explore the meaning of each clause with the line-by-line analysis at ConstitutionOnline.com.
Ensure that your family understands the Constitution. Read the Constitution together as a family. Check out Teaching American History’s interactive Constitutional Convention website. Add Constitution Quest to the family game night rotation. Or watch a movie about the Founding era like the excellent HBO mini-series on John Adams.
Start a Constitution study group. ConstitutionFacts.com offers both a simple quiz and an advanced one. Failed the quiz? Enroll now for Hillsdale College’s Constitution 101 and 201. Or learn the Constitution at your own pace with The Heritage Guide to the Constitution teaching companion.
Learn about the Framers. Heritage’s Founders’ Almanac has short bios and quotes some of the key Founders. Guess who was president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia? (Hint: He remains the consummate constitutional President, and his defense of religious liberty still guides us today.) Find your soul mate with the “Which Founder would you marry?” quiz.
Discover the ideas behind the Constitution. Learn about America’s 10 foundational principles and what needs to be done to get America back on course with the bestseller We Still Hold These Truths.
Share what you know about the Constitution. Post a blog on the true meaning of the Commerce Clause. Show some love for the Tenth Amendment on Twitter. Like the Legislative Vesting Clause on Facebook. Write a letter to your local newspaper about the importance of the Constitution. Donate copies of We Still Hold These Truths and The Heritage Guide to the Constitution to your local library and school.
Spread the word in your local community. Why should Independence Day have a monopoly on patriotic cookouts? Start a new tradition and host a Constitution Day party for your friends and neighbors. It beats a food stamps party, hands down. You could even end the night by singing patriotic songs.
Arm yourself with facts on key issues. Make use of Heritage resources to stay informed on the critical issues facing America, from foreign policy and the welfare state to health care and the rule of law.
Shore up the American Dream. Our Constitution makes the American Dream possible. Save the dream and fight for economic freedom by resisting the vast expanse (and expense) of the bureaucratic state.
Commit to a constitutional agenda. America is at a turning point: Either our leaders will guide the country even further along the road to “progressivism” or they will begin a long, slow turn back toward the principles of the American Founding. Changing America’s course is Heritage’s advice for how our political leaders can restore constitutional government.
After the Constitution was complete, Benjamin Franklin noted that it made the country "a republic, if you can keep it." Or as Alexis de Tocqueville said; “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”