“Our Constitution is a document in which ‘We the people’ tell the government what it is allowed to do. ‘We the people’ are free.”
-Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address, 1989
September 17th is Constitution Day, marking the day in 1787 when the Constitution was signed. It is a very special, important day in American history, but, unfortunately, it usually passes with little notice. We rightly celebrate the Fourth of July with much fanfare and fireworks, but without the Constitution, we wouldn’t have its principles of popular sovereignty, individual rights, limited government and the rule of law. Many other countries have a day of independence to celebrate, but no others have a document as noteworthy as the U.S. Constitution.
Some may dismiss the Constitution as archaic or unimportant in modern times, but it is the Constitution, with its principles of liberty and limited government, that has made America the most free and prosperous country in the world. The framers of the Constitution were well-educated and read widely in history and political philosophy. The system of federalism and the separation of powers set up by the Constitution was informed by their knowledge and understanding of history and human nature.
In Federalist 45, James Madison, who is widely acknowledged as “the father of the Constitution,” wrote about the importance of federalism in limiting the power of the federal government: “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”
In Federalist 51, Madison wrote about the importance of the separation of powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? 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.”
These internal controls are the separation of powers between the three branches of government and the division of power between the federal and state governments, and they are essential in retaining our liberty. But the external controls are that of the people, and they are the most important check on government power. A few lines later, Madison explains, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.”
Right now, in response to the expansion of the federal government beyond its “few and defined” powers, we are seeing Madison's external controls in action, and we see the importance of a constitution that limits government power. Millions of people throughout the country are exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out against massive spending, taxing and intrusions of the federal government into the private sector. It is heartening to see so many Americans speaking out to remind the government of its constitutional role and that it doesn’t tell us what to do, but “We the people” tell it what to do.
The U.S. Constitution is not unimportant or archaic; it is invaluable and timeless. There is no better time than now, in advance of Constitution Day on September 17, 2009, to reread it and remind ourselves of the amazing system of government it set up. Since 1787, the Constitution has provided stability through the rule of law and liberty through limited government. Let’s continue the tradition by continuing to speak out against the intrusion of the federal government into our lives.
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