Meaning and History of the Constitution

The Meaning and History of the Constitution

The American Mind

America’s Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said, was the product of “the American mind.” Our Constitution was made with the same purpose as the Declaration – to establish a regime where the people are sovereign, and the government protects the rights granted to them by their Creator

The word “constitution” means “to ordain and establish something.” It also means “to set a firm thing strongly in place.” It is linked to two other words: statute and statue. All three words – connote a similar idea of establishing something lasting and beautiful. 

The Constitution, then, is a work of art. It gives America its form. To fully know the “cause” or purpose, of America, one must know the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, its author, mentioned four thinkers for their contribution to molding “the American mind”: Aristotle, Cicero, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke. 

Studying these philosophers is a wondrous task in itself, and it greatly helps our understanding of America, just as it informed the statecraft of the Founders. 

Knowing the meaning of the Declaration & Constitution is vital to the choice before us today as to whether we will live under a Constitutin different than the one bequeathed to us.

The Declaration of Independence 

The soul of the American founding is located in the enduring political principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of these principles, especially equality, is decisively different than the definition given to those principles by modern progressivism. 

Equality means that nature ordains no one to be the ruler of any other person. Each human being is also equal in his natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are inalienable and possessed simply by virtue of being human. 

Equality, liberty, and natural rights require that legitimate government be republican. 

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”,  not the private concern or property of the rulers, & where offices of states are subsequently directly or indirectly elected or appointed rather than inherited. In modern times, a common simplified definition of a republic is a government where the head of state is not a monarch. 

The truth that all human beings are born free, equal, and independent means that a just government must be based on the consent of the governed – a consent which must be expressed through ongoing elections.

The political theory of the Declaration of Independence requires that government secure the natural rights of the citizens through adopting and enforcing criminal laws; adopting and enforcing civil laws regarding property, family, education, and provisions for the poor; and providing for national defense. 

If the regime fails to operate according to these principles, the people have a right and duty to alter or abolish the government and establish a new government which will secure rights through the consent of the governed. 

The people thus play a vital role in protecting their rights. They must be educated in “religion, morality, and knowledge”. A people that is not virtuous will not be able to perpetuate free government. 

Modern liberalism uses the same language of “equality” as the Declaration of Independence. Yet modern liberals mean something altogether different than what the Founders meant by those words. For the Progressives, “equality” means that government must redistribute wealth to provide equal access to resources. This idea necessitates government programs that  help mankind liberate itself from its “natural limitations”. 

The Declaration of Independence and modern Progressivism are fundamentaly opposed to each other. The modern misunderstanding of “equality” threatens the whole of the American constitutional and moral order. 

The Problem of Majority Tyranny 

America was governed under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789. Unable to redress the problem of “majority tyranny”, the Articles were abandoned in favor of the Constitution, which created a “more perfect union”. 

The Separation of Power: Preventing Tyranny 

Separation of powers is the central structural feature of the United States Constitution. The division of power among the three branches – legislative, executive, and judicial – is necessitated because human beings are imperfect. The imperfection of human nature means that well-structured government is necessary, though not sufficient, to prevent tyranny. 

The United States Constitution is structurally designed in part to prevent tyranny. Separation of powers is the means by which power is divided and ita accumulation in the hands of any single entity denied. 

During the 1780s, most states had constitutions that formally divided the government’s power, yet in practice the legislatures dominated. The state constitutions required separation of powers in theory, but failed to deliver it in reality. As a result, the constitutions were little more than what Publius (one of the ‘thinkers’) called “parchment barrier”. 

In order for separation of powers to work, each branch of government must have the “constitutional means” to resist the encroachment of the other branches. This is what today we call “checks and balances”. 

In addition to institutional checks and balances, there exist also the “personal motives” of people that will lead them to resist the encroachment of the other branches. Human nature is constant across the ages, according to Publius, and human beings are naturall ambitious. Instead of ignoring or attempting to suppress ambition, the Framers of the Constitution sought to channel it through the Constitution, so that it might serve the cause of liberty and justice rather than threaten it. 

The Framers understood that human nature has noble characteristics that are exxential to self-government, but also that it contains baser features, for which government must account. The Constitution’s structural separation of powers recognizes this truth, and in preventing tyranny makes self-government possible. 

The Separation of Powers: Ensuring Good Government 

The separation of powers helps to ensure good government at the same time it guards against tyranny. Independent in function but coordinated in the pursuit, the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial – must each have enough power to resist the encroachment of the others, and yet not so much that the liberty of the people is lost

A political regime has three dimensions: the ruling institutions, the rulers, and the way of life of the people. In America, the rulers – the people themselvesand their ruling institutions – staffed by the people’s representatives – aim at securing the Creator – endowed natural rights of all citizens. The Framers did this in two ways. “Vertically” considered, our ruling institutions are defined by federalism, or the division of power between the national, state, and local governments. “Horizontally” considered, the ruling institutions of the federal government itself are separated and co-equal. 

In the American regime, the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land” 

No one branch is superior to it; all three branches have a duty to abide by it. While each of the three branches plays a unique role in the passage, execution, and interpretation of laws, all of the branches must work together in the governing process. 

The legislative branch is closest to the people. It is also the branch in which the danger of majority tyranny lurks. The passions of the people are reflected most in the House of Representatives, where the members are elected for terms of two years. The Senate, with its six year terms, was designated to be a more stable legislative presence than the House. 

The defining characteristic of the executive is “energy”. The president can act swiftly and decisively to deal with foreign threats and to enforce the law, and can also provide a check on legislative tyranny through the veto. 

Members of the judiciary, the third branch of government, must exercise judgment in particular cases to secure individual rights. Through “judicial review”, the judiciary is given the authority to strike down laws that are contrary to the Constitution. But judicial review is not judicial supremacy; even the Supreme court must rely upon the other branches once it has rendered judgment. 

The checks that each branch can exercise against the encroachment of the others ultimately protect the liberties of the people. The separation of powers promotes justice and good government by having each branch perform its proper function. This institutional design allows the sovereign people to observe and to know which branch is responsible for which actions in order to hold each to account. The sense of mutual responsibility built into the separation of powers is a reflection of the moral and civic responsibility all Americans share. 

Religion, Morality, and Property 

The institutional separation of church and state – a revolutionary accomplishment of the American Founders – does not entail the separation of religion and politics. On the contrary, as the *Northwest Ordinance states, “religion, morality and knowledge” are “necessary to good government”. 

*The Northwest Ordinance (formally An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and also known as the Freedom Ordinance or “The Ordinance of 1787” ) was  an  act  of  the  Congress  of  the  Confederation  of the United States, passed  July 13, 1787.  The  primary  effect  of  the  ordinance was the creation of the Northwest Territory as the first organized territory of the United States  out  of the region south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

For America’s Founders, reason and revelation properly understood are complementary. “Almighty God hath created the mind free”, wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Human beings are fallible, yet despite this fact, they are capable of self-government.

With careful cultivation of one’s soul, attention to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”, and the uplifting assistance of family, church, and the local community, and individual is able to tame base passions and live worthy of the blessings of liberty. Virtue is vital to good government.

Among the greatest of blessings – and the most important of rights – is religious liberty. Rejecting the low standard of mere “toleration” that existed elsewhere, the Founders enshrined liberty of conscience as a matter of right. It is immoral, they held, for any government to coerce religious belief. Yet they also argued that it is advisable for governments to recognize their reliance upon “Divine Providence”, and to provide for the support and encouragement of religion. 

The government of the United States (or any of the fifty states) is not a church, and the church is not a governmental entity. This institutional separation, a clear statement of which is in the First Amendment, is a boon to both religion and politics, for instead of tying man’s religious fate to the future of the state, the establishment of religious liberty frees up religion so that it might flourish.

This important point is missed by the Supreme Court’s misinterpretation, repeated numerous times since 1947, of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor.

The Recovery of the Constitution

Statesmanship, for Franklin D. Roosevelt, entailed the “redefinition” of “rights in terms of a changing and growing social order.” Fulfilling the promise of Progressivism, President Roosevelt’s New Deal gave rise to unlimited government. In contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ideological successors, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan sought the restoration of limited government. Today, our choice is clear: Will we live by the principles of the American Founding, or by the values of the Progressives?

Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his campaign for the presidency in 1932 by emphasizing the Progressive understanding of history and by calling for the “redefinition” of the old idea of rights. His “New Deal,” a series of economic programs ostensibly aimed at extricating America from the Great Depression, vastly enlarged the size and scope of the federal government. Unelected bureaucratic agencies—“the administrative state”—became a fact of American life.

Roosevelt’s call for a “Second Bill of Rights” sought to add “security” to the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Describing the “old rights” of life and liberty as “inadequate” without underlying economic security, Roosevelt called for new economic rights for all, including the right to a job, a home, a fair wage, education, and medical care. With these rights guaranteed, Roosevelt argued, real political equality finally could be achieved.

Following President Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” continued the transformation of the relationship between the American people and their government. President Johnson redefined the government’s role by redefining equality itself: equality must be a “result” rather than a “right.” Expanded federal control over education, transportation, welfare, and medical care soon followed.

Announcing that “with the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” Ronald Reagan appealed to the principles of the American Founding in seeking to reduce the size and scope of the federal government. Maintaining that Progressivism and the consent of the governed are incompatible, Reagan called for a return to individual self-rule and national self-government.

Source: Hillsdale College

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