September 17, 1787 produced the longest-lasting written constitution in the world. In 1878 William Gladstone wrote this: “As the British Constitution is the most subtle organism which has proceeded from progressive history, so the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” (“The Yale Law Journal,” Vol. 5, 1896, pp. 239-246.)
Why should we celebrate the day of the US Constitution’s origination?
Eleven years earlier on July 4, 1776 the Continental Congress declared independence from the British Crown proclaiming an endowment of equality on all mankind given to them by their Creator—the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—through the Declaration of Independence. Those words were carefully chosen and properly sequenced. To have liberty, you must have life. To have happiness, you must have the liberty to choose.
Having boldly declared their intentions, the delegates were soon to discover their next challenge. As sovereigns they needed to collectively protect those sacrosanct rights. For over three months, fifty-five delegates worked to find a solution. Though elusive, their efforts were rewarded. Read the beauty and symmetry of the Constitution’s preamble and notice its aim.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure 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.”
We the People!
The People are the sovereign power that designed this government and granted it power. “The power under the Constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will be recalled.” (The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745—1799. Edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-44, Vol. 29:311.)
The union under the prior Confederation of States was imperfect. It did not protect those unalienable rights as desired by the founders. We were not recognized as a nation, partly, because we lacked order. In the absence of laws and in the chaos in the administration of the laws that did exist between local and state governments, justice was not being served to the people, instead leaving the keeping of the peace and the defense and protection of life and property to each man on his own. Life was spent in protection of personal welfare, thus disturbing the “general welfare” that the preamble prescribes. Note the definition of welfare at that time as recorded in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.
Welfare, “Exemption from any unusual evil or calamity; the enjoyment of peace and prosperity, or the ordinary blessings of society and civil government; applied to states.”Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828
Securing the blessings of liberty to self and posterity was central to this document. Liberty was designed to be generational and to endure the tests of time. The Constitution was ordained for these purposes. Notice this generational and ordered definition that follows. Ordain comes from the Latin ordino or order and means: “Properly, to set; to establish in a particular office or order; hence, to invest with a ministerial function or sacerdotal power…..” (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828). The Constitution was Divinely intended to give men the power to create their own laws and then govern themselves and each other. The Constitution acknowledges that human nature and power need checks and balances.
Each of the words from the preamble build on the previous one. Union and unity require promises to self and others in the form of justice. Justice provides tranquility and the general welfare and wellbeing of all, thus securing liberty to self and posterity which was ordained by God for a higher purpose. Many may think that is a stretch, but it is clear what the word ordained meant then as laid down by Webster’s Dictionary of that era.
The Further Dispersion of Powers
The Constitution carefully separates horizontally the three powers of government by legislative, executive, and judicial. It then disperses those powers among federal, state, and local government. Each of those levels of government then further organizes the powers again horizontally, by legislative, executive, and judicial offices. This separation, both lateral and vertical, is designed to prevent tyranny—or the rule of a few over the many.
Recognizing the importance of generational liberty George Washington said this: “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?” (The Writings of George Washington: Being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private. George Washington, Jared Sparks, 1838, p.71.)
Was It Enough?
At this point the early Americans had their unalienable rights and a protective constitutional fence around them, and a government to protect those liberties. But was it enough? The Anti-Federalists still felt vulnerable and could foresee shadows and echoes of despotic governments of the past. They insisted on a bill of rights, one that would come two years later. The purpose of the Bill of Rights was set down in this preamble.
“Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New York, on Wednesday the Fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.”
These thoughtfully enumerated rights were designed to prevent abuse of power by government over the citizens employing restrictive clauses as the insurance. The Constitution empowers government to protect the sovereignty of the people. But the Bill of Rights then turns 180 degrees to protect the people from the government.
In Federalist 51 James Madison summarizes it well. “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
The creation and coupling of the Constitution and Bill of Rights is ordained order intended to produce liberty for our time and generations to come. If there is any one person or group out there with higher rights or superior principles for defending sovereignty of its citizens, I invite you to articulate them.
Consider the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America recited by naturalized citizens which says: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
One thought on “Constitution Day”
Very profound! I love this wonderful and honest analysis.