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On the 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.

For more than two hundred years, the Constitution of the United States has been the bedrock of the American government.  In one document, our Founders laid out their plans for an experiment in the politics of liberty, republics, and equality.  In seven Articles and twenty-seven Amendments, our Constitution expresses to the world our commitment to the ideals of the Revolution: Freedom, the Rule of Law, Equality, and Independence.  It is the document by which we empower our leaders and limit their authority.  It is the Great Treaty that unifies our States, the Guarantor of Rights that guards our liberty, and the Supreme Law that tempers the whims of our government.

The important thing about the Constitution (any constitution) is that it limits the scope of government.  Every government has a structure, even in dictatorships.  While we Americans are justifiably proud of the checks-and-balances structure of our government, no measure of institutional balance would help if even one of the branches had authority to do anything it wanted.  The measure of a constitutional government is the ability of the Constitution to place effective limits on the power of the government.  By and large, the U.S. Constitution has been effective.  Because of constitutional guarantees, our government has respected many of our rights even when it would have been politically convenient not to do so.

The Constitution is designed to guard against tyranny.  It was delicately balanced to avoid emergence of factions, states, presidents, or judges with enough power to oppress the American people as the English had or as the States had under the old Articles of Confederation.  As a result, the best way Americans can ensure their liberty is usually to advocate for a strict adherence to the Constitution.

Think of how powerful that is!  Americans are incredibly fortunate to have a pro-liberty Constitution in place, giving us a stable government and articulating so many rights at the same time.  All we have to do is hold our government accountable for the promises of the Constitution and we will be free.  Americans have an enormous advantage in the fight for liberty compared to many other nations, because our Founders had the foresight to enshrine liberty and limited government as the fundamental values of our political system.

All that being said, let me give a few words of warning to those who believe that the Constitution holds all of the answers for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Having a good Constitution does not, in and of itself, preserve our liberty or ensure limited government.  It is a significant step in that direction, and make no mistake, the American Constitution is wonderful.  But strict adherence to the Constitution must be subordinate to our other principles. 

The Constitution was not divinely inspired.  It has been wrong in the past, and in some ways it is not quite optimal even now.  For the first seventy-six years, the Constitution allowed slavery to exist in this country, and other racially charged provisions like the “three-fifths compromise” are still an embarrassment.[1]  Some provisions are so vague that they are almost useless, like the Ninth Amendment.  The much-lauded structure of our government is fundamentally different today than it was in 1789 – thanks to the 12th and 17th Amendments, for example, we elect the President and Vice President on the same ticket, and we elect Senators by popular vote, neither of which were part of the Constitution the Founders set up.[2]  Even with protections of liberty, there are some places where the Constitution falls short of perfect, like by failing to explicitly protect our privacy, by tying gun rights (somehow) to militias,[3] and by allowing for the suspension of writs of habeas corpus (in admittedly extreme circumstances).[4]

This is the point: for all of its virtues, the Constitution is imperfect.  Over the years we have adjusted it, changing one provision or another to deal with our changing needs.  But even with our years of development and experience, it is still imperfect.  To venerate the Constitution as an end to pursue is a mistake.  I worry that too many conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party activists, in their enthusiasm for a return of government to strict Constitutional standards, forget that the Constitution itself is not the prize.  The Constitution is merely a means to other ends.  The Founders understood that; they wrote it into the preamble.  The Constitution was established as a tool to “secure the blessings of liberty.”  Those principles and values in the preamble are the ends for which we strive.  Liberty, justice, security, prosperity, equality – these are the values we must fight for.  When the Constitution stands for them – as it usually does – we fight for the Constitution.  But when it is wrong, we should not revere it so much as to falter in our principles.  And we must not allow ourselves to forget that the Constitution can be wrong – as it has been before.  That is why we have the amendment process, after all.

So, as we approach the mid-term elections, we should hold our candidates up to the standards of the Constitution to see how they measure up.  But even as we do that, we have to make sure that the values and principles that our candidates serve are the right ones.  The important thing is that our leaders use constitutional provisions for the furtherance of liberty, not just to attract voters who hear “constitutional government” and come running.



[1] U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 2.

[2] See U.S. Const. Art. II, Sec. 1.

[3] U.S. Const. Amendment 2.

[4] U.S. Const. Art. I, Sec. 9.