Note: Darin K. Chappell contributed to this column.
Unlike any other nation in the history of the world, the United States of America came into existence through the ratification of a document drafted by representatives of “We the People.”
Brilliant solutions to the trials and errors of countless prior generations were embodied in that brief document. The rule of law replaced the rule of men. All citizens were equal before that law, regardless of their wealth or status. Rights would be protected but not granted by the government, recognizing their source as divine, not human. Government officials would serve by the will of the people, not by inheritance or privilege. Government powers were strictly limited to those enumerated in that document and further constrained by dividing them among three separate-but-equal branches, each with power to check the other two.
Ratification was followed by two centuries of more trial and error in the continual struggle “to form a more perfect union” by living up to those principles. During that time, America – with all its flaws – became the freest, most prosperous on earth and the most significant force for good of any nation in history.
The United States Constitution is an astounding product of the highest pursuit of intellectual achievement in the 18th century, which has stood the test of time over more than 200 years. The document was established by the debate among brilliant men (and women), who relied on the evidence of what nearly 10,000 years of recorded human history had to offer, relating to societal options that had been tried by peoples of all cultures, languages, religions, geographical contexts and political theories. All these examples provided a spectrum of relative success, with some having worked well and others being miserable failures in protecting liberty and positive good for the citizens living under those various systems of governance. From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to Hobbes, Locke and Smith, the founders relied heavily on the philosophers of the world, throughout its history, to unravel the best way for people to live free while deriving the security to do so from a system of government able to protect them from wrong while not being in the way of doing right.
Our national Constitution establishes the system they derived from this monumental effort.
Written in 1787, in force in 1789 and amended with the Bill of Rights in 1791, the U.S. Constitution has served as the premier example of what is possible for a people yearning to breathe free. It has been the bedrock of American federalism (the political division of power between the national and state governments) and the blueprint for how the American society is to be propagated as the home of liberty in a world that is anything but striving for freedom. If we embrace the vision established in the Constitution, we will remain a free people at liberty to live our lives together in relative peace and harmony. If we reject our foundation, we will be tossed about on the sea of political uncertainty and disunion, as a ship unmoored in a hurricane. Those who love America cannot allow that intellectual unmooring to occur.
Those who would see the Constitution as a “living document” generally mean that the Constitution is to be recognized as merely a guiding suggestion. Therefore, it is to be constantly reinterpreted through fresh ideas of the current day. While it is understandable that some would desire to believe this process of modernistic hermeneutics is best, this view can lead to nothing but the ruin of the Constitution as a formula for freedom.
All ancient documents were written in specific contexts by which they were understood correctly. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, he did so in a way they were meant to understand. They had specific cultural, linguistic, political, educational, religious, economic and geographical contexts in which they lived, which shaped their understanding of the world around them. To comprehend Paul’s letter, they could only have understood what their specific life context compelled them to understand. Many today try to read that letter, and other portions of the Bible, with “21st century eyes” and have misconstrued what was intended in the original writing because of their modern cultural biases.
The Constitution, being the oldest such document in the world, was also written in a specific set of cultural and temporal contexts. It cannot be read with 21st century eyes, with a modern understanding of words and phrases, without considering the context in which it was written. The writing supplied by the Founding Fathers was introduced to the American people within that specific context and was understood within the same context of their lives. Trying to maneuver a “new meaning” to those writings is to reject the proper understanding of what the founders suggested and the citizenry approved in the ratification of the Constitution. If the words of the Constitution do not mean what they meant when the original authors of those words penned them, they do not mean something else … they mean nothing at all!
The Constitution is NOT a “living document” that can be corrupted through reinterpretations shaded by modern biases of political ideologies. It can only correctly be understood within the historical context in which it was written.
Suppose a premise is supported in the original intent of the constitutional framework, which is no longer acceptable to American citizens. In that case, the Constitution allows for amending the blueprint for a better fit in the modern world. Herein is another example of the founders’ genius, in that they recognized the limitations of their times. They knew that history had shown them what evidence was available at the time, but there was no way to predict what the future would bring. The Constitution IS a “living document” in that it can be amended, according to the pattern allowed, but that requires the support of the American people through the states. As such, it permits the Constitution to address societal change on a broad scale (as was accomplished in the abolition of slavery, suffrage for black men, suffrage for all women, voting rights for those 18 years old, and nationalization of citizenship and Bill of Rights protections, for example), but it protects the Constitution from being twisted from its meaning by those seeking to circumvent the proper process of alteration.
When reading the text of the Constitution, it is the readers’ responsibility to seek an understanding of what was originally understood by those for whom it was written. If we find that meaning unacceptable in modern American society, let’s work together to amend the Constitution rather than ignore what it says. In that way alone, can we ensure the bedrock of our society is preserved with integrity and passed on to generations yet unborn with the surety that we have given them a clear view of what this document truly is:
The most outstanding example of governmental philosophy ever introduced to a people, anywhere in the world, at any time, exclusively created to provide a means by which liberty, freedom and the rights of humanity can be preserved and enshrined for all time.
As cherished as this gift bequeathed to all-time by our founders is, it cannot defend itself against the onslaught of those who would destroy the freedom to exercise our rights. “We the People” must always assume the physical characteristics of the body armor (scales) of Hobbe’s Leviathan in the support and defense of the United States Constitution and its resultant society and culture.
As Daniel Webster observed, “The Constitution has enemies, secret and professed. … They have hot heads and cold hearts. They are rash, reckless, and fierce for change, and with no affection for the existing institutions of their country. … Other enemies there are, more cool, and with more calculation. These have a deeper and more fixed and dangerous purpose. … There are those in the country, who profess, in their own words, even to hate the Constitution”
From 1776 until today, some 1.5 to 2 million Sons and Daughters of America have made the “last full measure of devotion” that freedom and liberty might extend to the very end of time. As the body armor of the people’s Leviathan, “We the People” must ensure their sacrifice was not in vain – at the ballot box this November.
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