On this day of days it is good to commemorate the Founding document of our constitutional republic, i.e. the US Constitution. In its own day it was no mean achievement, and even now its ideas and issues prove inspirational. An understanding of its historical context can only serve to illuminate the rich tradition from which it comes. It is fitting and proper that this be done.
The Anglo-Saxon constitutional tradition of limited government, of which the American Founders were the inheritors, starts on the plains of Runnymede, England in 1215 with the Magna Carta. This document limited the power of the King, a novel and dangerous idea at the time. That idea evolved slowly into a representative parliament given explanation and justification by the writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the latter half of the 17th century. Their work is an attempt to reason about the relationship of government, political freedom, and natural rights derived from natural law. Edmund Burke, the reputed ‘father’ of conservatism, noted in 1775, “The people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen.... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles. The people are Protestants... a persuasion not only favorable to liberty, but built upon it....”
The American experiment was to give this attempt at limited and self government a more constitutional framework. The American founding documents themselves are the product of the Enlightenment thinking of Locke, Montesquieu and many others. Simply put, the Founders' main concerns were how to secure liberty, prevent tyranny and limit government. This is aptly stated in the Preamble to the US Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Cultural Origins of the United States
As has been stated, America’s association with constitutional democracy comes from its Anglo-Saxon heritage. The growth of parliamentary democracy in England influenced the emergence of constitutionalism in America. The overwhelming majority of settlers who came to colonial America were of British ancestry due to the steady stream of about 170 years of immigration throughout the colonial period starting with Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies in 1607 and 1620 respectively.
These British settlers populated the eastern seaboard of North America. They retained the language, manners, and customs of their ‘mother’ country. Political ideas were transferred as well. However, the geographical separation, unique character of the environment, and the habit of fending for themselves in a harsh wilderness, contributed to an independence of mind and spirit. This coupled with coercive taxation without political representation led to permanent separation and independence in 1776. David Hackett Fischer, in his book Albion’s Seed noted, “Most of the first American settlers were Protestant dissenters who wanted to establish a godly society in the New World, free from coercion. For most of America’s history a vague non-doctrinal Protestantism was its informally established religion. Thus the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution arose from a religious and cultural tradition that derived from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.”
The Growth of Constitutional Democracy in the United States
The Founding Fathers deliberated long and hard on how to create a governmental system that would embody the new ideals of "limited government", "natural rights" and "consent of the governed". These men were no starry eyed idealists. They warned against the abuse of power. James Madison said, "All men having power ought to be distrusted."
These were radical ideas back in the late 18th century. Thus when the Constitution was written in 1787 their main concerns were to limit the power of central government, (an age-old problem of human society); to protect the natural rights of men; and to ensure the "blessings of liberty". The US Constitution is supposed to be the solution to those concerns.
The main principles of the Constitution, i.e. separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism are foundational. The "rule of law" is the underlying subtext. This means that the American republic is one of laws, of rights, of processes. It does not mean a government of personality, of title, of men, or of office.
Furthermore, the Constitution has seven articles. It is no accident that the first one, and the most detailed, is about Congress. Why, because it is the representative body of the people, from whence all legitimacy derives. Representation means accountability. The "consent of the governed" is not a bumper sticker. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “the consent of the governed”. Even the Articles of Confederation (the first framework of the newly independent states) speaks of the "consent of the United States Congress assembled". This “consent” idea cannot be overstated.
Another distinguishing feature of the Constitution is federalism. A feature that exemplifies limited government. The governments of the 13 states had already been in existence by the time of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. They had started as colonies then became states from 1777 to 1787 under the Articles of Confederation. However, the Articles of Confederation proved to be too weak, thus the US Constitution was established.
Moreover, to further limit central governmental power, federalism was institutionalized to share power between the federal level and the state level of government. It is important to note that state power preceded national power. The people's rights preceded the Constitution and federal power. The people's rights are considered to be "natural rights", thus the statement: "endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights" in the Declaration of Independence. According to this thinking, embraced by the Framers, the people's rights do not come from the government. The government is empowered and legitimized by, again, the "consent of the governed".
It is therefore, good to remind ourselves that the Founders were creating a government of laws, not of men, which was in stark contrast to the European governments of their time. Today we commemorate that tradition.