Remarks delivered by Diane Rufino in Greenville, N. C. September 17, 2011
Calvin Coolidge once said: "To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race."
On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown to end the war for our Independence from Great Britain. The following year the Treaty of Paris was signed to officially end the war and recognize the existence of the United States. A new nation, conceived in Liberty, was born.
The next step was to figure out a way to hold us together as a union - "a more perfect union" – to keep us strong, and yet honor those reasons that the settlers came to America's shores in the first place. And so, on May 25, 1787, 55 delegates from all of the states (except Rhode Island), met in Philadelphia to draft a Constitution that would accomplish these goals.
The Constitutional Convention was organized under the guise of amending the federal government under the Articles of Confederation in order to overcome its limitations. But James Madison and other members of the Virginia delegation and Alexander Hamilton of New York had other plans. They wanted to create a new government altogether – from scratch. And they intended to scrap the Articles and draft a new constitution.
The states sent some of their finest minds to the Convention, including James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, George Mason, and Roger Sherman. A few of our most important Founders, and our most brilliant political minds, were not present. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most prolific and well-read Founders, was in France at the time, acting as Minister to that country. John Adams was also abroad on official duty for the newly-independent nation, as Minister to Great Britain. Patrick Henry was also absent; he refused to go because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy." He was likely referring to Alexander Hamilton, who strongly admired the British monarchy. Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, who introduced the formal resolution a Declaration of Independence, and Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, both active in the Sons of Liberty and architects of the Boston Tea Party, were also not present at the Convention.
Delegates included those who fit into three general categories: (1) those who admired the monarchy and wanted our new system of government to be designed after the British system (the "monarchists"; Alexander Hamilton was the only one), (2) those who wanted power centralized in a strong central government, with a "consolidation" of the states and their power (the "nationalists"; James Madison was their most vocal proponent), and (3) those who wanted a federal government, one of limited powers and balanced by strong sovereign states (the federalists). Luckily for freedom-loving individuals, it was the Federalists who won the day at the Convention and it was Federalist principles upon which the Constitution was based. You see, our Founders weren't willing to trade one form of tyranny for another.
Almost immediately, it was understood that our nation would need to be a republic rather than a true democracy. It would be a nation of laws and not a nation of men. It would be ruled by supreme law and not the mob. The rights and interests of minority groups would not be trampled by the will of the majority. And so our Founders gave us a nation based on the Rule of Law and not the passions of man.
As a very old and very wise Benjamin Franklin said on the last day of the Convention as the final draft of the Constitution was signed: "I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best." As he was leaving the building that afternoon, a lady asked him: "What kind of government have you given us?" He replied; "A Republic, ma'am if you can keep it."
But the Constitution was not quite ready to form that "perfect Union." It still needed something else before the States would accept it --- A Bill of Rights…. to specifically protect the rights that Americans inherited from their English roots and which they fought so hard for. If they wanted to protect against a strong central government, a list of rights guaranteed to the people was critical.
The Convention of 1787 and the ratification process produced the most enduring written Constitution ever created by human hands and human minds. In fact, the United States Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world. Together with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, they constitute the charter of our freedom. These are our documents to limit government.
The Declaration of Independence, the blueprint upon which the Constitution was designed, established the values on which our country was founded. It is our moral compass. It announced to a "candid world" that the independent states of America were founded on the notion of individual liberty and limited government. The Declaration of Independence is the first national document in history acknowledging that fundamental rights are endowed upon man from a Creator. America's independence was not only of worldwide significance because a new nation was founded in the New World, but because a new nation, the very first of its kind, was founded 'under God.' Perhaps the most remarkable gift of all bequeathed to us by our Founders is this single phrase "endowed by the Creator." In embracing Natural Law and acknowledging that our fundamental liberties derive from our relationship with our Creator, our Founders were able to secure our liberties from the reach of government.
Another remarkable gift came from their careful study of government philosophy, especially from the Western Enlightenment era or "Age of Reason" and especially from the writings of John Locke. The most important was the realization that each individual person is sovereign – meaning, "his own king" – and never to be ruled over by another or subjugated by government. Locke wrote that individuals have the sovereign rights of life, liberty, and property and the sovereign rights of self-determination and self-protection.
John Locke not only embraced Natural Law, but he took it one step further and applied it to government. Simply put, he wrote that Men have sovereign God-given rights and governments MUST protect them. Governments are morally obligated to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property, and have no power or right to take them away. How can we give consent to a government to make rules for us if we don't have the original power to make rules for ourselves?" It was the sovereign people ("We the People") for whom the Constitution was created.
And so you can see how this makes sense. The Constitution begins, as most contracts do, with an explanation of its purpose. It reads: "We the People, 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." Then it lists the specific powers that the People have agreed to delegate to the federal government. [It is a classic social contract].
Not only did our Founding Fathers read about these fundamental truths and principles, but they infused our founding documents with them, memorializing them in a Constitution "for generations to come and millions unborn."
Put yourself in the minds of our Founders and ask this question: Which comes first - individuals or governments? We all know the answer. Individuals. Individuals, with certain fundamental sovereign rights, form into communities. They delegate their power over their property and other liberties to a local government to protect them on their behalf.
Local governments make sense. A local government can provide services easier than individuals who must go to work and do other things. What is your fundamental liberty worth when you can't travel because you have to stay around to guard and protect your property? So, some government is necessary to maximize liberty. But too much government destroys liberty.
And this was the dilemma that our Founders faced: They had to figure out how MUCH government was appropriate. In creating a federal government - a government NOT close to the people - they knew that they would have to give it only very limited powers - powers to serve the nation in general. They also knew that they would need to give it some power to restrain the people, but more power to restrain itself.
James Madison summed up the intention of the Constitution best in The Federalist Papers when he wrote that power was always meant to remain closest to the people. In Federalist No. 45, he wrote: " The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite. The powers reserved to the several states will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and property of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state."
And so, that was the Constitution that our Founders gave us.... one that created a limited federal government, one of specific and defined powers, and one obligated by its very design to keep its power in check. Our Constitution gave us the Separation of Powers doctrine, a series of checks and balances, representation in government for both the People and the States themselves (although that was taken away by the 17th Amendment), the Bill of Rights, and the 10th Amendment in particular - to keep the States strong and watchful over government. But most of all, it was written for us.
The Constitution was indeed written for those who have the most to lose and therefore would have the greatest incentive to be vigilant and educated - We the People. And so we must be its faithful guardians. We must always remember that the Constitution is OUR document. It is our document to limit government and NOT the government's document to try to regulate us.
But we know we haven't been its faithful guardians. We know that our country is suffering a constitutional crisis. How do we know this? How do we know the true power of the Constitution? Because we can see the direct consequences of a government that has refused to abide by its constitutional limits.
Glenn Beck wrote this: "The riddle today is the same one faced by our Founding Fathers when they began their experiment. Societies need government. Governments elevate men into power, and men who seek power are prone to corruption. It spreads like a disease. And sooner or later the end result is always a slide into tyranny. That's the way it's always been. And so this government of the United States, so brilliantly and deliberately structured by our Founders, was designed to keep that weakness of human nature in check. But it required the people to participate daily, to be vigilant. And we have not. It demanded that we behave as though government is our servant, but we have not. So while we slept, the servant has become our master."
In 1964, Ronald Reagan asked: "Do we believe in our capacity for self-government or do we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves?" This year, Newt Gingrich asked: "What allows one group of people to believe they have the right to determine what's best for the lives of others and the right to take what they need for that purpose? We have gone the full spectra in the rights of man with respect to government: We replaced the divine right of Kings with the divine right of the individual and now with the divine right self-righteous groups."
The Constitution, by word and spirit, limits government in our lives. This is the take-home message. Our Founders came up with a unique, magical formula, not embraced in any other country, which, with every detail, limits government and enlarges individual liberty like never before. When will we, as benefactors of our Founders' formula, stand up for the promises made in this great document? Ronald Reagan, in 1980 said: "All of us have come here because we know the country can't go on the way it is going. So it falls to all of us to take action. We have to ask ourselves: If we do nothing, where does all of this end? Can anyone here say that if we can't do it, someone down the road can do it? And if no one does it, then what happens to the country? I know it's a hell of a challenge, but ask yourselves this: if not us, who, if not now, when?"
Of all the miserable places to live in this world, we are still truly blessed to live in the United States. We have a lot to be thankful for, indeed. And we also have a lot to think about. Today, Constitution Day, is a perfect time to start thinking.
Today we celebrate the Constitution and all the wonderful values and principles that our Founders embraced in it. We celebrate their gift of freedom. Hopefully, we'll celebrate it every day of our lives through our actions and through the lessons we teach our children and grandchildren.