The U.S. Constitution is the greatest political achievement in the history of the world. As we enter into Constitution week, many schools and organizations will be reviewing this document and many Americans will celebrate their freedoms protected by it.
While we tend to think of the Constitution in modern times as almost divinely inspired, it is important to remember the history of how we got what we got. Conservatives and libertarians especially look to the Constitution with a sense of reverence, yet it was designed by flawed men and contains its own flaws. This should not hinder our view of the Constitution, but strengthen it. The turmoil it took to accomplish it is riddled with wonderful lessons for us today and should make us appreciate even more the final result.
These lessons should be our focus come Constitution Day. In today’s divisive political landscape, the only way to move ourselves forward is by learning from our past; both in triumph and in tragedy.
Compromise in Style; Never in Principle
It is often said that the United States was built on compromise, and to make politics work again, we must return to that spirit of bipartisanship. This is somewhat true, but not for the reasons professed by modern politicians and figure heads. It is true that the founders did compromise on many things in order to form our Constitution, and simultaneously our country. However, during this time both the federalists and the anti-federalists generally believed in the idea of liberty. Because they shared this common belief and a common definition of that belief, they were able to find their best way forward.
Consider that our founders were unyielding in principle when they did not see eye to eye on issues. Patrick Henry was a perfect example of this. The Anti-Federalist orator saw the original federal Constitution as a severe threat to liberty, having too much power centralized and without a Bill of Rights. Though the Federalists ultimately prevailed in their battle, Henry made the process a living hell and almost sabotaged their hopes for a federal Constitution. The case can be made that, with the Bill of Rights’ induction in 1791, Henry won the war.
The battle over the Constitution contains a valuable lesson in how true compromise works between men of conviction. It is not the giving of some values and the winning of others; it is to move forward on areas of agreement and remain unyielding in areas that would risk losing principle.
While it is technically true that our country was built on compromise, it is equally true that not every compromise made was beneficial to the future of the nation. Many compromises made were necessary for the preservation of the young union at the time, but others helped lead way to the Civil War.
Charles Sumner was a Congressman and abolitionist during the Civil War. He felt many of the many negative effects of compromise in the fight to end slavery. Saying once that “from the beginning of our history the country has been afflicted with compromise. It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned.”
The best summary of this lesson comes from someone who wasn’t present during the Constitutional Convention:
“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” – Thomas Jefferson
Trust in Ideas, Not Leaders
During the American Revolution, most of the founders were in political agreement on rebelling against the crown, even if some came around to the idea more quickly than others. There was a common enemy at that point and it was easy to unify. After the Revolution had ended and the trial of forming a new nation was on their plates, the real struggle began. It was unknown whether the war they had just fought would amount to anything or if we would return to a monarchy once more. While we avoided a direct monarchy, the threat to liberty was far from over.
Before the turn of the century, fear from the French Revolution had already gripped the country, and the government capitalized on that fear to go after free speech. While it was short lived, the administration of John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. It doesn’t seem possible that the same generation, and many of the same people, who signed the Declaration of Independence would be jailing people over speech just a few decades later. Yet this is exactly what happened.
This first crisis of liberty in America illustrates a few things. The first, and most obvious, should be that it illustrates just how fragile liberty can be. The second is how much foresight many of the founders had that they would limit the powers of the government even from themselves. No man is perfect, which is exactly the point of the Constitution. Understand that they passed it when it was all but certain that George Washington would become President. He was America’s most beloved man; nobody worried about him becoming a king, with even welcoming it. Yet, Madison and others knew that people are corruptible and flawed, even themselves.
This is why Madison explained in Federalist 51, “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.”
At the end of the day, no matter how perfect a leader may seem, they are only human with all the imperfection that such implies. This is why we must not trust in leaders, but in each other. This is also why our trust must be in the eternal truths of liberty spoken about in the Declaration of Independence. Holding our heroes accountable to the litmus test of liberty, and relying more on ourselves and our neighbors, is the surest way to protect our rights.
The Glorious Burden to Keep It
After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was stopped by a woman outside who asked him whether we had been given a republic or a monarchy. Franklin quickly replied with an optimistic caution.
“A Republic,” he told her. “If you can keep it.”
This is not an unknown story, and many people are familiar with it, but that doesn’t mean everyone understands the responsibility it implies.
The combination of the original Constitution and the addition of the Bill of Rights a few years later provided the greatest protection of liberty the world had ever seen up to that point. However, the protections the Constitution provides is a symbiotic relationship. While the protections in the Constitution provide the chains against a tyrannical government, it is only as effective as long as there are people who will protect the Constitution.
This insinuates a great and glorious burden of being forever watchful. We must understand the proper role of government and never give an inch to those who would wish to change it. Liberty is the “why” of the Constitution. If we don’t understand that and stand to protect the entire Bill of Rights, we can’t expect to be protected by it.
America is a very unique country. Others have their origins in heritage, power, corruption, or conquest. America was the first country of its kind to be conceived in liberty. That is both a blessing and a curse.
We have a responsibility like none other to ensure America remains a safe haven and refuge for a world in chaos. We must ensure that this country remains a beacon of liberty. To do that, we must apply these lessons on both a national scale and a personal level.
Be flexible, yet determined in conviction.
Don’t put your trust in leaders; they will let you down one way or another. Instead, put trust in your neighbors and fellow individuals. Know that the principles of liberty are right and the only moral option.
Always be watchful for those who wish to trade liberty for something else. Liberty, once lost, is seldom restored. Know the responsibility we all have. Know the danger that occurs when we ignore it, and know the blessing it can be when we embrace it.