by Quin Hillyer
September 17 marked the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution at the end of the long, hot constitutional convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. The entire world is better off because of the work of those men in Philadelphia.
It was British statesman William Gladstone who later called the U.S. Constitution “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” (Of course, the Bible is a much more wonderful work, but it developed over centuries, not “at a given time.”) He was right. It was a creation of collective genius, achieved through a great combination of principle with thoughtful compromise. It set up a government that protected God-given rights while deliberately limiting that same government itself and thus limiting the opportunity for the government to trample those rights.
It did this not just by separating the powers of government horizontally among the now-familiar “branches” of legislative, executive and judiciary, but also by separating those powers vertically among national, state, and local governments, with each possessing at least some authority not available to the others. The first Congress elected under the Constitution made clear that this style of government limited at least a certain number of basic liberties by adopting a “Bill of Rights” – which was not intended to name every right possessed by the people, but to name the most basic and important rights that government could not violate.
The University of Mobile celebrated not just Constitution Day, but Constitution Week, with a forum on the great national charter featuring a guest lecture by William Pryor, distinguished judge on the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor explained that this second way of separating powers, called “federalism,” resulted from a great insight of those who gathered in Philadelphia that summer:
They understood that most laws and public policies were best when adopted at a local level because different communities have different values and ideas. They also understood that, when different communities experiment with different policies, all communities will learn from each other which policies work well and which policies do not. As a result, our communities compete in matters of education, job creation, and public safety. Citizens move to communities with wise laws and policies, and force communities with bad laws and policies to change and adopt better laws and policies.
A later sage called the state and local governments “laboratories of democracy” for just that reason: because those experiments that worked locally could then be emulated elsewhere, while those that didn’t work would not be inflicted on anyone else. It is a brilliant system.
In much the same way, the United States and its Constitution serve as one big laboratory of republican government. When the Constitution was written, most of the world’s people thought true republics were by their very nature unstable, destined to be short-lived and to lead to either anarchy or tyranny. The men of Philadelphia, and then the American people who put into practice the system the founders designed, proved otherwise. Indeed, we continue to prove that representative democracy works. It can assure freedom, ensure a high degree of justice, and promote societal stability, simultaneously.
It remains for us to make sure that we ourselves in the United States do not let down our guard. Just because our Constitution has worked for so long does not mean, in the words of the title of a famous book on the Constitution, that our government is “a machine that would go of itself.” The Constitution only provides a framework by which American citizens can protect our liberties; The Constitution does not do the work all by itself. James Madison, rightly nicknamed the “father of the Constitution,” put it like this in a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson shortly after the Constitution was ratified: “Perhaps too there may be a certain degree of danger, that a succession of artful and ambitious rulers may by gradual and well-timed advances, finally erect an independent government on the subversion of liberty. Should this danger exist at all, it is prudent to guard against it.”
That’s exactly what the Constitution does: It provides a fortress against the “subversion of liberty.” But it is our job to stand watch against “artful and ambitious” rulers who would undermine the Constitution itself, and thus undermine liberty.
Judge Pryor ended his presentation with a quote, an instruction, from Daniel Webster which is so appropriate that it is worth also concluding with here: “Hold on to the Constitution of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands–what has happened once in 6,000 years may never happen again. Hold on to your Constitution, for if the American Constitution shall fall there will be anarchy throughout the world.”