Constitution Day was Sunday, Sept. 17, arguably the most forgotten designated day in America. The mainstream media will say nothing of it. No parades or city council proclamations; nothing of it in the week prior in university classes. No three-day weekend, beer busts or barbecues in its favor. It is as though it never happened. Probably not one in 10 can tell what happened on this day in 1787; it has been ignored so long.
But this day positively affected everyone in the United States and is probably the most important day in our history, the day that we institutionalized liberty in America. It is the day that the Constitutional Convention ended and the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification.
For nearly six thousand years of recorded history, governments best described as regimental have dominated man. Only for a few fleeting moments in the past has individual man had anything to say concerning the restrictions leveled on him. Under an occasional benevolent monarchy or an unconcerned king, man has been left to himself and thus somewhat free. And, even more rare were the instances when as in Athens, Rome or at Runnymede, England the people, sometimes through persuasion and often by force, instituted changes allowing individual freedom to flourish for a brief time. Our experiment with liberty was one such instance.
Still, until 1787 man did not know how to harness government. Liberty is, in fact, freedom from excessive government, and the biggest enemy to individual liberty is, and has always been, government. But the Constitutional Convention, ending Sept. 17, did just this harnessing.
We abolished kings forever, in favor of presidents selected by the state legislatures – before the 17th Amendment – for a short, but defined, period of time. We took away the president’s power to make decrees and even laws or rules over the people, allowing him to merely suggest changes in a state of the union address, and to sign or to veto laws made by the legislative branch.
The legislative branch, consisting of representatives for the states, – the U.S. Senate – to protect states rights from federal intrusion, and the peoples’ representatives – the House of Representatives – to protect the people from federal intrusion, made all law. Both legislative arms had to approve every law imposed upon the people, as seen from their different perspectives, and all law had to adhere to the constitutional list, according to Article I, Section 8, Clause 1-18.
Historically, the two areas most sensitive to the people were excessive taxation, as all monies expended were extracted from the people, and unpopular wars, as all injuries, deaths, and suffering was absorbed by the people. Under the Constitution, there can never be an unpopular war as the peoples’ representative, The House of Representatives, have total power over raising and funding the army. They must consent to the war by declaration because they provide blood and brawn for it, and they alone authorize the treasure for it, according to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11. “All bills for raising revenue shall originate” with them, according to Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1. The Constitution, if followed as designed, ended for all time both unpopular taxes and war. We became the first nation in history to place the people in charge of both issues. Moreover, funding for war could not be extended for more than a two-year time period, thus requiring that the war remain the will of the people, see Article I, Section 8, Clause 12.
The Constitution is marked by four divisions of power: the first and most important being between the states and the federal government with fear of a national government dominant. The Founders, under the new concept of federalism, allowed two governments to coexist, neither to be over or under the other, with primarily external issues governed by a federal government and internal issues by the states – like a marriage – equal partners. All power not specifically listed in the Constitution remained with the states. The federal government’s powers were listed in Article I, Section 8, Clauses 1-18 or in amendments that the states agreed to later by the required three-quarters vote of the states to approve, see Article V. It was set up as a limited government from the outset with few federal laws restricting the individual.
The other three divisions divided power at the federal level. Separation of powers, with the legislative branch making federal law, the executive branch enforcing it and the judicial branch adjudicating it, is a basic tenet of the Constitution. But none of these branches were to legislate, execute or adjudicate in a manner to erase or undermine the first division of power between the states and the federal government. No Founding Father supported it.
The Bill of Rights, demanded by the states as a condition of their ratification of the Constitution, further restricted the federal government in many areas. Amendments thereafter Nos. 11-24, approved by three-quarters vote of the states, altered some parts of the Constitution. Still, the federal government remains limited and on notice to remain subservient to the people.
The Constitution remains an enemy to big government, largely supported by both political parties, liberals and conservatives alike, because big government is an enemy to individual liberty. Perhaps this lapse is the reason so few wish to honor it or bring attention to it on Constitution Day. Americans might awaken to their extensive loss of liberty.
Dr. Harold Pease is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and to applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 30 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles, please visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.