September 17 is Constitution Day, the annual occasion for Americans to pay special tribute to the nation’s most important governing document.
On this day in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution. Once ratified by the states, it became the law of the land in 1789. British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone described it a century later as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”
Gladstone was right. In the long history of national constitutions (some countries have had dozens of them and paid little attention to any of them), none approach the magnificence of what our founding generation produced in Philadelphia. Now the oldest written and codified national constitution still in force, it provided the most promising foundation for a system of human liberty the world had ever seen.
Was it perfect? Of course not, and the Founders never claimed it was. If they thought it couldn’t be improved, they wouldn’t have laid out a process for amendments or endorsed the first ten right off the bat (the Bill of Rights).
Did it take liberty as far as it could possibly go? For its day, it likely did. Certainly, it took it much further than any other such document. Its authors put both the spirit and the machinery of liberty in place and on which subsequent generations could build, if they chose to, an ever-freer society.
Critics will say that the Constitution did not prevent the massive growth of the central government over the past century or so and therefore, we must regard it as a failure. But has the Constitution failed, or have we failed the Constitution? The case for the latter is far stronger than the former. In any event, the Constitution is still there any time we decide we want to live up to it once again. I’m not aware of a viable alternative.
Calvin Coolidge’s words are as spot-on today as they were in 1923 when he said, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.” For a short explanation of why the document is so extraordinary, see “The Genius of the Constitution,” as well as the recommended links at the bottom of this article.
On this Constitution Day, let’s remember that it was this document and the system it created that put America on the path to becoming a beacon for the world, the place millions try to get into every year. If we fail to honor it, or if we ignore it or trash it, we do so at our peril, as the following comments about it would suggest:
I join cordially in admiring and revering the Constitution of the United States, the result of the collected wisdom of our country. That wisdom has committed to us the important task of proving by example that a government, if organized in all its parts on the representative principle unadulterated by the infusion of spurious elements and if founded not in the fears and follies of man but on his reason, on his sense of right, on the predominance of the social over his dissocial passions, may be so free as to restrain him in no moral right, and so firm as to protect him from every moral wrong – Thomas Jefferson, 1801.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice – Martin Luther King Jr., 1963.
I never thought carefully before about the clause of the constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a man for purposes of apportionment. Had they been counted as whole persons, it would’ve increased the South’s power in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Thus, rather than being a provision that disparaged black people, it actually was an effort to diminish the power of their oppressors – Bruce Bartlett, 2008.
In all matters but slavery the framers of the Constitution used the very clearest, shortest, and most direct language. But the Constitution alludes to slavery three times without mentioning it once! The language used becomes ambiguous, roundabout, and mystical…Why didn’t they do it? We cannot doubt that it was done on purpose. Only one reason is possible, and that is supplied us by one of the framers of the Constitution—and it is not possible for man to conceive of any other—they expected and desired that the system would come to an end, and meant that when it did, the Constitution should not show that there ever had been a slave in this good free country of ours! – Abraham Lincoln, 1860.
The Constitution made it clear that the government was not to interfere with productive non-violent human energy. This is the key element that has permitted America’s great achievements. It was a great plan; we should all be thankful for the bravery and wisdom of those who established this nation and secured the Constitution for us. We have been the political and economic envy of the world. We have truly been blessed. The Founders often spoke of “divine providence” and that God willed us this great nation. It has been a grand experiment, but it is important that the fundamental moral premises that underpin this nation are understood and maintained – Ron Paul, 2018.
For Additional Information, See:
Twelve Marvelous Quotes on the Bill of Rights by Lawrence W. Reed
The Constitution of the Killing Fields by Lawrence W. Reed
North Korea’s Constitution Makes Me Craugh by Lawrence W. Reed
The Lust for Power Led to Rome’s Decline and Fall by Lawrence W. Reed
The Fall of the Republic by Lawrence W. Reed
America’s Republic: How the Great Experiment Came About by Lawrence W. Reed
The Golden Calf of Democracy by Lawrence W. Reed
Yes, America’s Birthday Deserves to be Celebrated by Lawrence W. Reed
Multiple articles from FEE on the U.S. Constitution
Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.
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