The United States is a remarkable place. The source of America’s strength lies in many places including the bravery of her soldiers, the faith of her people, the charity of her citizens and the blessings of liberty she harbors. Yet today we celebrate the extraordinary document that made America possible, the United States Constitution. The U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use in the world. It forms the basis for our country by creating different branches of government and delegating specific powers to each of them.
The history of our Constitution stretches back 232 years. “From May 25 to September 17, 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia at the same statehouse (now called Independence Hall) from which the Second Continental Congress a decade earlier had issued the Declaration of Independence.” On the last day of the Convention, September 17, 1787, the Constitution was signed by the Founding Fathers. This didn’t end the process of the creation of the Constitution however, as it needed to be ratified (approved) by three-quarters of the states before taking effect.
During the 10-month ratification period where each state agreed to the Constitution, several of the Framers of the document began writing a series of 85 articles and essays under the pseudonym “Publius.” These articles were written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and became known as The Federalist Papers.
James Madison, the author of Federalist No. 51, examined the importance of the separation of powers. He wrote, “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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 in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The late-great Justice Antonin Scalia brilliantly articulated the importance of the U.S. Constitution to our Republic. Scalia argued that it is not the Bill of Rights alone that preserves liberty. Rather, it is the prescient structure of government built into the Constitution. Scalia writes, “Virtually all the countries of the world today have bills of rights. You would not feel your freedom secure in most of them.”
Scalia quotes from a bill of rights in a different country. Their bill of rights states, “Citizens… are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, meetings, street processions and demonstrations.” Yet, he notes that the provision is in the 1977 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a regime that held little regard for these “rights.”
Scalia writes, “They were not worth the paper they were printed on… They are what the Framers of our Constitution called ‘parchment guarantees,’ because the real constitutions of those countries – the provisions that establish the institutions of government – do not prevent the centralization of power in one man or one party, thus enabling the guarantees to be ignored. Structure is everything.”
Justice Scalia eloquently articulated the structure of our Constitution is one of the reasons Americans are still free. The first three articles of the Constitution delegate authority to the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch respectively. Article IV of the Constitution deals with the powers left to the States. In other words, the Constitution split powers two different ways, first between the three branches of the federal government, and then between the federal government and the states.
On the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, President Ronald Reagan delivered these remarks: “In a very real sense, it was then -in 1787 – that the revolution truly began. For it was with the writing of our Constitution, setting down the architecture of democratic government, that the noble sentiments and brave rhetoric of 1776 took on substance, that the hopes and dreams of the revolutionists could become a living, enduring reality.”
There is a popular story often told of Benjamin Franklin recounted by Eric Metaxas in his book A Republic, If You Can Keep It. One day, after exiting the Constitution Convention, Franklin was approached by a woman named Mrs. Powell. “According to McHenry, Mrs. Powell put her question to Franklin directly: ‘Well, doctor.’ She asked him, ‘what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin, who was rarely short of words or wit, shot back: ‘A republic, madam – if you can keep it.’”
Wise words were spoken by Benjamin Franklin that day, and they ring true for us today. In a republic such are ours. the government is beholden to the interests of the people. The Preamble to our Constitution declares, “We the People of the United States… do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
I had the privilege of seeing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in person when I was in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives. It was a moving experience to stand in front of the documents that formed our country, and turned the American experiment from an idea into a reality.
The task of preserving the country and the Constitution falls to each new generation of Americans. It is up to us to determine whether we will preserve the blessings of liberty that previous generations have preserved and passed down, or whether we will allow our liberty to slowly decay until like the bill of rights of the Soviet Republic, it is meaningless. The choice is ours.