September 17, 1787. Two hundred and twenty six years ago. Just over a decade after a group of brave Americans declared to the world that the time had come to “dissolve the political bands” which connected them to Great Britain, this new nation operating under the Articles of Confederation sent representatives to a convention in an effort to improve upon those Articles. What resulted was actually a new document – an incredibly important one – that would provide a framework for how this young Republic would be governed forever.
In the Declaration of Independence we find the very reason the Constitution was necessary, and we find in both documents a surpassing wisdom that has protected liberty for more than two centuries. In fact, in a part of the Declaration that almost everyone can quote, the Founders said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While some may disagree about the specific faith of our Founding Fathers, it is hard to deny they had a deeply held conviction that God had created man, that He had created them equal, and that He had blessed them with certain rights. Government did not grant rights to its citizens. No, that was done by a much higher power, and government merely existed to protect those rights. In fact, one need look at the very next sentence to see their view of just how limited a purpose government should have: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” They believed in these truths so strongly that they had just risked their lives and well-being fighting a war to be free from a government they believed had overstepped its bounds. Therefore, just over a decade later, they would do their very best to draft a Constitution that would make it very difficult for government to run amok.
Last night I had the pleasure of meeting George Will on the campus of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. During his presentation there, he alluded to the Founders’ desire to make it difficult to pass laws and how the Constitution was purposely drafted with that in mind. The Constitution established a series of checks and balances, all aimed at making sure that power could not be concentrated and abused. For example, the same law must pass by a majority vote in two separate chambers, and the members of those chambers serve different constituencies and differing lengths of terms. Even after they pass the law, it must be signed by an executive with a different political constituency. The judicial branch was also designed to provide still another check in the process. After outlining this design, Will made the fascinating observation, “Gridlock is not an American problem. It is an American achievement.”
I have to admit I chuckled at that thought before settling on just how profound it is. In today’s world, the political class in both parties often bemoans the process and how Washington can’t get anything done. I submit to you (and I think George Will would agree) that this is precisely the point. Our founders knew that governments will naturally want to grow and that people serving in those governments can sometimes forget whom they serve. Therefore, they designed a system that would intentionally be difficult to navigate. Only in modern times have we distorted that system by allowing the proliferation of federal agencies which wield power delegated to them by Congress and by allowing the executive branch to go unchecked in its use of executive power.
Is our system broken? By no means. That is the beauty of the founding wisdom of this nation. Our constitution contains the tools needed to keep the Republic – it merely requires that We The People pay attention and stay involved in the process. As we celebrate the anniversary of the signing of our Constitution today, may we fully appreciate that it is the foundational document for the liberty we enjoy today. May we also remember that – as frustrating as the process in Washington, D.C. may be at times – the power still lies with the people, and it is up to us to hold our elected officials accountable. Happy Constitution Day from OCPA!