Remembering our landmark Constitution

Today we celebrate the 222nd anniversary of the completion of the United States Constitution by a hardy assemblage of patriots in 1787, meeting for four months in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. They produced the world’s first written constitution, which has turned out to be the longest continuing constitution as well. While we revere our Constitution we must also be mindful of the obligation that we, the people, imposed upon ourselves so that we can enjoy its benefits in the future for at least as long as we have already. The Constitution has numerous virtues, each one of which merits praise in our public discourse. It is widely understood and appreciated (excepting certain political parties) that the virtue that underlies all the others is limited government. Martin Diamond, who coauthored what was doubtless the best American government textbook ever written, and who was also one of my mentors, spelled out the various ways in which the American government is limited, and each is in its own way, remarkable.

The Constitution limits the scope, the jurisdiction, the powers and the operation of all levels of government. First, it carries out the fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence that limits government to the security of everyone’s liberty. It is emphatically a movement away from ancient governments, which subordinated liberty to the goals of the ruling class, and from medieval governments, which sought to guarantee eternal salvation.

This is also not a government that attempts to guarantee everyone’s satisfaction but leaves them free to make the decisions that promote their happiness. It rejected in advance the totalitarian regimes that cursed so much of the world in the 20th century, such as fascism, communism and nazism. We must add to that list radical Islam which invades human freedom for the sake of jihad.

Second, the Constitution limits the jurisdiction of both federal and state governments, by broadening that of the former and restricting that of the latter. Before the national government was instituted by nine states’ ratification of the Constitution in 1788 and the first national elections in 1789, we were governed by a loose alliance of sovereign states. It was essentially a military alliance for winning and keeping our independence, but it was incompetent to accomplish even that very well, not to mention the equally important object of promoting commerce among the states and securing adequate revenue.

The Constitution was written mainly to secure a powerful government for the limited purposes of common defense and general welfare through granting it authority to make decisions by the consent of the people, rather than by consent of the state governments. Thus, the Constitution deprived the states of the power to govern the Union, but left with them the vast bulk of domestic powers relating to the safety, welfare, health and education of persons in their jurisdiction.

Liberals today are prone to imagine that the broad authority of the federal government in certain areas somehow justifies any scheme that can be financed by federal revenues. Conservatives, on the other hand, sometimes have difficulty granting the federal government the broad authority over limited objects which it actually possesses. No one stated the matter more clearly than James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution:

"The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected." (The Federalist, No. 62)

Third, the federal government is limited to those enumerated powers, particularly in Article I, Section 8, wherein the powers of Congress are set forth. The last clause of that section, known as the necessary and proper clause, does not grant any additional powers but leaves it to the discretion of federal officers the means for "carry[ing all] powers into execution."

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted out of an abundance of caution, reminds us that powers not granted to the federal government, nor prohibited to the states, are left with the states or the people. It does not deny any powers that the original Constitution did not already deny.

Fourth, the Constitution limits the operation of the federal government by distributing powers among three separate and distinct departments with an eye to preventing tyranny by either the government or the people, as well as providing the most competent government possible. Congress has the power to make laws, but it requires the assent of two legislative branches and the approval of the President. The President’s veto power is not absolute, as two thirds of both houses of Congress may override it.

The Supreme Court and other federal courts established by Congress have jurisdiction over cases arising under the law and hear challenges from lower courts to federal authority. The power to declare either state or federal laws null and void was not explicitly stated in the Constitution but was thought to be implied by the fact that a limited government required such a check on legislative authority.

The checks on Congress derive from the fact that the lawmaking power is the greatest of all powers in a republic, which includes regulating the executive and judicial branches, funding them and approving their personnel. It is misleading to speak of some sort of "deadlock of democracy" between three equally frustrated branches as liberals often lament and conservatives sometimes imagine.

Congress can deliberate but it cannot provide leadership when circumstances call for it. Only the president is so constituted by its unity, duration and powers. Congress can make laws but it cannot fairly judge violators. Only an independent judiciary can do that.

The Constitution is also noteworthy for its brevity. It consists of only seven sections, the first of which is as long as the rest combined. This enables persons of average intelligence to read and understand its provisions without resort to voluminous interpretations or obeisance to Platonic guardians. Unfortunately, that has not prevented our states from devising exceedingly long constitutions. (For example, California has amended its constitution more than 500 times!) Nor has it prevented virtual canonization of those wearing judicial robes with their unfathomable interpretations.

Again, it is Madison who has the best criticism of the first corruption and, by implication, of the second:

"It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed? (The Federalist, No. 45)

The Constitution could not have been adopted without compromising with slavery which, sad to say, took a bloody Civil War to extinguish. And it is only as good as we, the people, make it by our continued adherence to its fundamental strictures. Nevertheless, it has continually frustrated the tyrannical ambitions or grandiose schemes of its enemies or confused friends, and God willing it will continue to do so.