September 17 is the day that the founders signed the Constitution. It is, therefore, Constitution Day - the day officially set aside for Americans to commemorate and learn more about this most important founding document. On this date, public schools, federal agencies, and numerous private organizations provide instruction on the Constitution and the rights of American citizens.
But why bother designating a special day just for a piece of paper? What’s so important about America’s Constitution? Why do we need to ensure that the public understands it and knows what’s in it? The answer to these questions lies in the four major concepts the Constitution outlines.
The preamble to the Constitution says, “We the people of the United States […] do ordain and establish this Constitution […]” This notion of popular sovereignty, which means that a government must derive its power from the consent of the people, is arguably the most revolutionary idea in the Constitution. According to this concept, the government can only act if the people tell it to. This gives citizens the space to freely exercise their liberties and make decisions about their own lives without undue government interference.
William Gladstone described our Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Part of what makes it so extraordinary is the Bill of Rights, a set of amendments that lists our essential liberties. Among these are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. It also guarantees citizens the right to bear arms and to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as excessive punishments.
Perhaps even more important than listing these specific rights, the Bill of Rights declares that the powers not assigned to the federal government are reserved to the people and the states. By including these provisions, the Founders created a limited government and enshrined the rights of individuals.
Separation of Powers
The Founders understood the frailties of human nature and the corrupting influence of power. Therefore, they instilled in the Constitution a number of devices to prohibit a single entity obtaining too much power. These devices included bicameralism and independent courts. They also included what we now refer to as the “separation of powers.”
In The Federalist No. 47, Madison declares that the “preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct.” In his view, any one entity exercising all three aspects of government power (legislative, executive, and judiciary) “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
During the Constitutional Convention, delegates disagreed about how much power the central government should wield versus how much should be allotted to the states. The resulting compromise was the concept of federalism - the sharing of powers between the federal and state governments. James Madison described this new governmental structure as a composite of federal and national governments. It was the political vitality engendered by this “incomplete” national government that Alexis de Tocqueville later celebrated in his essays about America.
However, American federalism is about more than just restricting political power. The Founders understood that a successful government depends as much upon communities promoting civic or public virtue as it does on legal devices designed to curb power grabs by simple majorities. Therefore, federalism can help build a sense of political community and public spirit that most discussions about federalism overlook. This understanding is what makes the American experiment the amazing achievement the Framers envisioned it as.
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