The United States Constitution is not some musty piece of parchment, in barely legible calligraphy, irrelevant to our lives. To the contrary, it is a revolutionary document of profound historical and current significance. If you don’t believe that, here are the “Top Ten” reasons you should change your mind:
1. A Written Constitution. The Constitution was the first written document to establish a nation’s government. For thousands of years, mankind was ruled by fear, force, custom, and tradition. But no country had actually written down the basic outline of their government. The act of writing down our form of government is taken for granted today, but was a huge leap forward for the rule of law (that is the law governs, not the personal desires of those in power).
2. Approved by the People. Until 1788, no country in the course of human history put the form of their government up to a vote of the people for adoption. Usually governments were imposed by force, war, and corruption. Before the federal Constitution was adopted, the States were nearly entirely independent countries, that had united together under the Articles of Confederation for a very few purposes. Because each State was basically its own country, the Congress of the Articles of Confederation needed to act unanimously to pass any law, and then it was up to each State to follow through. So to make a new federal Constitution, each State needed to ratify it. But instead of having the legislature or governor of each State make that decision, the States convened ratifying conventions. The People at large voted for representative delegates to each convention, each of which then robustly debated ratification. Unless the ratifying convention of any respective approved the Constitution, it would not be adopted. This was another amazing advancement. We literally created a new Social Compact for the country, agreed to by the People.
3. Separation of Powers. Although England and ancient Rome had some pretense of separation of powers, it was muddled and often subverted. Until the United States Constitution, no national government in world history firmly divided the three major functions of government into co-equal separate branches of government. By dividing power up between the legislative (Congress), executive (President), and judicial (Supreme Court) branches, the Constitution protects liberty by stopping one person or group from taking total control of the federal government.
4. Checks and Balances. Hand in glove with separation of powers, by giving each branch the ability to check the other branches, the Constitution better protects liberty. It requires that all three branches act together – or at least have a voice – to enact policy. For example, the President can veto legislation passed by the Congress, but then Congress can override that veto with a ⅔ vote. The President is the commander-in-chief of the military, but only Congress can fund it and declare war. Even if Congress and the President pass a law, if it violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court must strike it down. The President nominates judges, but the Senate must approve the nominees. Again, liberty is protected by limiting the power of any particular branch of government.
5. Enumerated Powers. Most governments in human history presume that the government is all powerful, and then carves out certain restrictions (privileges) where it cannot act. The federal Constitution is exactly the opposite. Unless the federal Constitution specifically lists (i.e., enumerates) that the federal government has the authority to act, it cannot do so. By substantially limiting the reach of federal power, enumerated powers is a key safeguard of liberty.
6. Federalism. By reserving all powers not enumerated to the federal government to the States, federalism empowers the People of the States to enact policies in light of local circumstances. By ensuring that local issues are addressed locally, the States can ensure better governance – they can tailor their policies to the facts on the ground, as opposed to one-size fits all solutions from Washington, D.C. It also empowers experimentation at the local level, and people can move to States that are more in alignment with their idea of the good life. It also strengthens the Social Compact by making State officials accountable for State policies. More importantly, federalism protects liberty by creating built-in tensions between the States and federal government. By dividing power between the federal and State governments, it protects freedom. Power is divided not just between the branches of government, but between the levels of government. To have uniform, national oppression, oppressors would need to take control of all three branches of the federal government, plus the three branches of governments of all 50 States – quite a tall order! This system was unique in human history.
7. Unalienable Rights. The Constitution has many protections of unalienable rights (rights given to us by the Creator) in the original Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights. These constitutional rights include key components of freedom, including the free exercise of religion, freedoms of speech and press, the right to jury trials, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. We could wax eloquently, but we all know these rights are vital to our liberties.
8. Equality. Equality under the law is guaranteed by the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery), and the 14th Amendment (ensuring equal protection of the laws and due process for all Americans). During the course of human history, inequality was the prevailing reality. We have not yet escaped the dark shadow of slavery, but we have made tremendous progress through the Constitution and need to continue to strive to fulfill its promise.
9. Voting. Through the 15th Amendment (granting freedmen the vote), the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote), the 24th Amendment (abolishing poll taxes), and the 26th Amendment (giving citizens 18 and above the right to vote), the Constitution gives all American citizens the right to vote. This struggle for the franchise took centuries and should be cherished by all.
10. Amendment. The Founding Fathers understood that they were far from perfect, and the Constitution itself permits its amendment – which we have done 27 times. We can even call for a new Constitutional Convention to start anew.
There you have it, a solid Top 10 reasons why the Constitution is vitally important to us today. Whether or not we will maintain our Constitution, freedoms, and liberties, however, will be entirely up to you. Accept the challenge!
Judge Michael Warren is the co-creator of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org), author of America’s Survival Guide (www.AmericasSurvivalGuide.com), and host of the Patriot Lessons: American History & Civics Podcast.