At this point in our history, it is important for citizens to reeducate themselves and understand the foundation of American government, the Constitution. This document is what enabled America to become the great nation we are blessed to live in.
The Constitution… approaches nearer to perfection than any government hitherto instituted among men. (1788)
The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon. (1795)
– George Washington, 1st President and Commander of the Revolutionary Army.
The US Constitution is a contract between the American citizens and their government. The terms of the contract list the specific responsibilities the federal government is tasked to perform. In 1833 Chief Justice Joseph Story wrote a series of commentaries on the Constitution.
In our future commentaries upon the constitution we shall treat it then, as it is denominated in the instrument itself, as a constitution of government ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves and their posterity. They have declared it the supreme law of the land. They have made it a limited government. They have defined its authority. They have restrained it to the exercise of certain powers and reserved all others to the states or to the people. It is a popular government. Those who administer it are responsible to the people. It is as popular and just as much emanating from the people as the state governments. It is created for one purpose, the state governments for another. It may be altered and amended and abolished at the will of the people. In short it was made by the people, made for the people, and is responsible to the people.
– Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Vol.1 P382.
Let’s unpack some key points:
- “a constitution of government ordained and established by the people of the United States…” The Constitution was written by delegates from the state governments. It was ratified by the state legislatures, the representatives of the citizens of each state. Therefore ordained by the people.
- “They have declared it the supreme law of the land.” The people decided it was better to have a common supreme law that would supercede their state laws in certain areas.
- “They have made it a limited government. They have defined its authority. They have restrained it to the exercise of certain powers and reserved all others to the states or to the people.” Although the Constitution gives the federal government supreme authority, this authority is limited to specific areas, decided by the people, listed in the Constitution. Note that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to change or add to these areas – only the people do.
- “It is created for one purpose, the state governments for another.” Because the federal government is the most removed from the voter, it should be the least present in the lives of citizens. It will be most efficient when it focuses only on its constitutionally approved tasks. Today we have the federal government trying to do almost all governmental tasks, with very poor results.
- “It may be altered and amended and abolished at the will of the people.” The state legislatures created the Constitution, therefore they have the power to change it. The procedure to amend the Constitution is spelled out in Article V of the Constitution.
The Constitution is the rulebook for the government, but it is also a mere piece of paper. It has no power except for that accorded it by government authorities. In America, citizens elect those representatives, and can choose whether to vote for constitution-abiding candidates or not.
When asked by a citizen about the type of new government created by the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” This is still true today. We as citizens must work to keep our constitutional republic.