In the summer of 1787, fifty-five delegates met in secret at Philadelphia’s State House (later known as Independence Hall) to propose and debate a new national system of government. Since before George Washington’s victory over the British at Yorktown in 1781, the United States had been governed under the Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1777 and were fully ratified by the thirteen states in 1781. But by the spring and early summer of ’87 it had become abundantly clear that the Articles were too weak for a burgeoning country. A new, stronger, and more centralized form of government was needed.
What those fifty-five delegates hammered out over that hot summer in Philadelphia was something entirely new—a constitutional republic.
Upon finishing their work, thirty-nine of the fifty-five delegates placed their signatures on the new United States Constitution. When Benjamin Franklin walked out into the bright sunshine, a Mrs. Powel cornered Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Well, the Constitution has been amended, debated, obscured, banded about, and forgotten but we’ve kept it for 224 years. It is easy to take the Constitution and the Bill of Rights for granted. So, on this Constitution Day We the People, as others before us have done, ought to pause for a moment and give thanks for what those men did during that summer in Philadelphia and to appreciate, once again, the remarkable achievement that is the United States Constitution.
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We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and a religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. (John Adams, “To the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts,” October 11, 1798)
Our Constitution professedly rests upon the good sense and attachment of the people. This basis, weak as it may appear, has not yet been found to fail. (John Quincy Adams in a letter to William Vans Murray, January 27, 1801)
The whole history of this country shows a British instinct—and I think I may say, a genius—for the division of power. The American constitution, with its checks and counter checks, combined with its frequent appeals to the people, embodied much of the ancient wisdom of this island. (Winston Churchill, November 11, 1947)
The British race have always abhorred arbitrary and absolute government in every form. The great men who founded the American constitution expressed this same separation of authority in the strongest and most durable form. Not only did they divide executive, legislative and judicial functions, but also by instituting a federal system they preserved immense and sovereign rights to local communities and by all these means they have maintained—often at some inconvenience—a system of law and liberty under which they thrived and reached the physical and, at this moment, the moral leadership of the world. (Winston Churchill, Woodford, Essex, January 28, 1950)
The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men, at all times, and under all circumstances. (David Davis, Ex Parte Milligan, 1866)
The voice of the Constitution is the inescapably solemn self-consciousness of the people giving the law unto themselves. (E. L. Doctorow, “A Citizen Reads the Constitution,” 1993)
It is an excellency of this Constitution that it is expressed with brevity, and in the plain, common language of mankind. (Oliver Ellsworth during the ratification debates of Connecticut, 1788)
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupt as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does. . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. . . . On the whole, Sir, I cannot help express a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would, with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument. (Benjamin Franklin to the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787)
I have always regarded that Constitution as the most remarkable work known to me in modern times to have been produced by the human intellect, at a single stroke (so to speak), in its application to political affairs. (William Gladstone in a letter to the committee in charge of the celebration of the centennial of the U.S. Constitution, July 20, 1887)
The fathers who contrived and passed the Constitution were wise in their generation; as time passes, we come more and more to realize their powers of divination. (Learned Hand, The Spirit of Liberty, 1959)
In questions of power . . . let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution. (Thomas Jefferson, draft of the Kentucky Resolutions, October 4, 1789)
Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction. I say the same as to the opinion of those who consider the grant of the treaty-making power as boundless. If it is, then we have no Constitution. If it has bounds, they can be no other than the definitions of the powers which that instrument gives. It specifies & delineates the operations permitted to the federal government, and gives all the powers necessary to carry these into execution. Whatever of these enumerated objects is proper for a law, Congress may make the law; whatever is proper to be executed by way of a treaty, the President & Senate may enter into the treaty; whatever is to be done by a judicial sentence, the judges may pass the sentence. (Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Senator Wilson Cary Nicholas, September 7, 1803, regarding the Louisiana Purchase)
It is also not entirely unworthy of observation, that in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the Constitution itself is first mentioned, and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall be made in pursuance of the Constitution, have that rank. Thus, the particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principles, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument. (John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, 1803)
The people made the Constitution, and the people can unmake it. It is the creature of their own will, and lives only by their will. (John Marshall, Cohens v. Virginia, 1821)
I wish the Constitution, which is offered, had been made more perfect; but I sincerely believe it is the best that could be obtained at this time. And, as a constitutional door is opened for amendment hereafter, the adoption of it, under the present circumstances of the Union, is in my opinion desirable. (George Washington in a letter to Patrick Henry, September 24, 1787)
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Please share these ideas of Constitutional liberty with your friends. If you’d like to read more about American liberty, please see Derrick’s book, O America! A Manifesto on Liberty, available at Amazon.