September 17, 2001

September 17, 2001 | WebMemo on Political Thought

Remember the Constitution

"In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom," President Bush reminded us in his remarks at the National Cathedral.  "They have attacked America because we are freedom's home and defender, and the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time."

Today is Constitution Day, and marks the signing of the longest lasting, most successful, most enviable and most imitated constitution man has ever known.  At a time when our freedom and the rule of law are under attack, we should pause for a moment to consider this remarkable event and what Abraham Lincoln called "an inestimable jewel."

The Declaration of Independence eloquently announced America's separation from England and proclaimed new principles of legitimate political authority.  It was the United States Constitution, however, that actually formed "a more perfect Union" and continues to secure "the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

Eleven years after the Declaration, from May 25 to September 17, 1787, delegates convened in Philadelphia to create a new constitution for governing the new nation.  Not only were there leaders in the fight for independence, such as Roger Sherman and John Dickinson, and leading thinkers just coming into prominence, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, but also legendary figures, such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.  John Adams declared the three-and-a-half month convention "the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen."

Their challenge was to create the institutional arrangements for securing the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and preserving a republican form of government that reflected the consent of the governed, all the while severely restricting state authority so as to prevent government tyranny.  Their solution was to create a strong government of adequate but limited powers, all carefully enumerated in a written constitution.  In addition to an energetic executive, a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary, its structural arrangements include a system of separated powers-giving each branch different functions and responsibilities so that none dominates-and federalism, which divides authority between the national and state governments.  That the framers could agree on such a government was, according to George Washington, "little short of a miracle."

Since its ratification in 1789, the Constitution has secured our fundamental rights, recognizing an unprecedented degree of human freedom at the same time that it upholds the rule of law.  The monumental exception, of course, was the institution of slavery-recognized by the letter of the Constitution, condemned by the words of the Declaration-which eventually required a civil war to right.  Nevertheless, the Constitution has provided the framework for the people of America to build a great, prosperous and just nation unlike any in the world-a nation that those few delegates, as optimistic as they were, could only have imagined.

As a nation, we must now relearn much what, in peace and prosperity, we have forgotten.  To be sure, we must relearn the fact that the world is a dangerous place and-sixty years after the last foreign strike on our soil-that we are not immune from attack.  Democracies are too often blind when it comes to threats to their freedom.  But, if in this moment we are to strengthen our resolve and deepen our patriotism, we must also relearn-and our political leaders must rekindle our dedication to-America's principles and purposes. 

Winston Churchill, at the time of the Blitz, when German air raids were devastating London, said that "the world is witnessing the birth throes of a sublime resolve."   But he also warned the British people that "this is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

As we raise the flag, and explain to our children what is happening to our nation, let us not forget the calling of our time, and take our stand for freedom.  Remember the Constitution.

Matthew Spalding Ph.D., is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, and editor of The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding.

About the Author

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D. Vice President, American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics