Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in a celebration of our United States Constitution hosted by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Thank you Tracey Hamilton Roberts for inviting me to be a part of this event.
The US Constitution is the longest standing written constitution in the world. Maligned by some, but admired by most, it has provided a stable form of government for 233 years that has resulted in the opportunity for freedom and prosperity to all citizens within her borders. Years of neglect are now weakening a beautiful foundation, and in order to reform our Government back to its Constitutional splendor, we must understand what went into the construction of this magnificent document.
Near the end of the War for Independence, a general recognition arose that the Articles of Confederation were lacking the stability necessary to govern a large nation. With weaknesses showing in both internal and international affairs, calls for a new constitutional convention began. Matthew Spalding tells us the Founders were, “Absolutely committed to the idea of popular rule, they knew that previous attempts to establish such a government had almost always led to majority tyranny-that of the overbearing many disregarding the rights of the few. Previous solutions usually rendered government weak, and thus susceptible to all the problems with which the Founders were most concerned.”.
Embarking on the journey towards a new constitution was not a light or transient thought, nor was it borne of a rebellion against authority, as later in France. The brightest minds were brought together to discuss and determine a new course for the fledging nation. Relying on God’s providence and coupled with a deep knowledge of history and political philosophy, a plan for revising the Articles of Confederation was begun. From May to September of 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia in what John Adams described as “the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen”. There were three basic rules of the Convention: voting was to be by state, with each state, regardless of size or population, having one vote; proper decorum was to be maintained at all times; and the proceedings were to be strictly secret. Anticipating what was about to occur, different states prepared slates of resolutions to present to the convention in an effort to affect the outcome that they desired. There were two main plans that rose to the top. The Virginia Plan created a strong national government with executive, legislative and judicial branches. Under this plan, the bi-cameral legislative branch would have representation in each body selected solely by population. New Jersey came with a plan that preserved the “one state one vote” method in the Articles, in an effort to protect the smaller states, and slightly changed the structure of powers. As disputations arose, Roger Sherman of Connecticut brokered a compromise that gave attention to both the large and small states. The House of Representatives would have its members selected by population, and the Senate would have its members selected by the states, with each state having the same number of senators. Also added was the provision that all spending would originate in the House, where the larger states would have more representation. As debate continued, the text grew to include eighteen powers of congress, the “necessary and proper” clause, and prohibitions on actions of the states. Language was cleaned up and the final draft was presented to the convention on Sept. 17th, 1787.
Tucked into the details of the text of the Constitution itself, are three principles that are very important to the structure of our government: the republican form of government, the separation of powers, and federalism. Again, from Matthew Spalding, “The Founders believed that citizen virtue was crucial for the success of republican government but they knew that passion and interest were permanent parts of human nature. Rather than hoping for the best, the Founders designed a system that would harness these opposite and rival interests.
The effect of representation-of individual citizens being represented in the government rather than ruling through direct participatory democracy-is to refine and moderate public opinion through a deliberative process. Extending the Republic, literally increasing the size of the nation, would take in a greater number and variety of opinions, making it harder for a majority to form on narrow interests contrary to the common good. The majority that did develop would be more settled and, by necessity, would encompass (and represent) a wider diversity of opinion. This idea that bigger is better reversed the prevailing assumption that republican government could work only in small states.
The Founders also knew, that “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” In order to distribute power and prevent its accumulation, they created three separate branches of government, each performing its own functions and duties and sharing a few powers so that they would have an incentive to check each other. Jefferson called the “republican form and principles of our Constitution” and “the salutary distribution of powers” in the Constitution the “two sheet anchors of our Union.” “If driven from either,” he predicted, “we shall be in danger of foundering.”
And although national powers were clearly enhanced by the Constitution, the federal government was to exercise only delegated powers, the remainder being reserved to the states or the people. Despite the need for additional national authority, the Framers remained distrustful of government in general and of a centralized federal government in particular. “Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.” To give the states more leverage against the national government, equal state representation in the Senate was blended into the national legislature. “This balance between the National and State governments ought to be dwelt on with peculiar attention, as it is of the utmost importance,” Hamilton argued. “It forms a double security to the people. If one encroaches on their rights they will find a powerful protection in the other.
These three principles are what has led to our stability and success as a nation, and these are the principles we ought to protect at all cost. As time has passed, we have witnessed a weakening of the separation of powers, overreach by the Federal government into states’ rights, and presently, a strong effort to subvert elected representation and other constitutional standards instituted to protect the voice of the few against the many. Educating ourselves about our founding principles and annually reminding ourselves of them, is the surest way to protect our nation and preserve it for future generations.