Honoring a Revolutionary Document on Constitution Day

Americans should remember our founding document’s real purpose.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

More than 200 years ago a group of men produced a document that provided for ordered liberty while protecting individual freedom. That document turned the traditional underpinnings of governments, like "divine right of Kings," on their heads by declaring that each and every human being was in fact "King" over his own life.

The United States Constitution was and is unique in all of recorded history. It establishes as the basis of our government that ultimate power does not rest with a sovereign anointed by God or with an aristocracy or even with a single individual, popularly selected. No, the U.S. Constitution establishes that the home of the ultimate political power is, in fact, the hands and hearts of the people.

The U.S. Constitution, which is celebrated today—Constitution Day—here in America, gave life to the idea of individual human dignity as civil construct; that men had rights, rights which came, as Jefferson put it in the Declaration, from "the laws of nature and nature's God," not from the state or a single ruler.

It has taken a long time for much of the rest of the world to come around to this idea. In some places the leaders still haven't got it despite the example we set. For many years this system, our system, the American constitutional system—despite its many obvious flaws—worked even better than the Founders perhaps had a right to hope it might. That it did so was due to the fact that we are by nature a self-governing people; that we have the ability and character to make the essential decisions that govern our lives and the willingness to shoulder the responsibility for doing so.

Where the Constitution was in error, those errors were corrected by debate, by amendment and by the blood of succeeding generations of American patriots. It is sometimes said that America takes up arms—not in pursuit of territory or material wealth or to subjugate a foreign people—but in support of an idea. This is a fitting tribute to a nation that is, itself, the product of an idea.

There are those who, today, encourage the idea that the Constitution is a living, breathing document—not because the nation it governs is dynamic and ever changing but in order to explain they have the right, even the obligation to bend it and reshape it in ways that accommodate their desires of the moment but run far afield of the Founders' intentions.

Rather than a device to protect liberty, they see the Constitution as a cudgel to be misused to enforce petty tyrannies on behalf of progressive interests, as when they talk about majority-rule absent of any consideration for the rights of the minority. When "We won" is offered as the reason for ending a policy debate where parties are in disagreement.

For all that, however, the American system remains alive and well and robust. Americans continue to have the opportunity to learn, to study the Constitution and the Founders' words and writings in order to increase our own understanding of them.

On Constitution Day, we should resolve to do just that. To remain a free people it is not too much to ask that, for one day a year, that we must immerse ourselves in the language and foundations of our liberties. In this way we can secure the Republic for another generation.

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