By: Andre Chang
September 17th, 2022 will mark the 235th anniversary of the US Constitution of 1787. The fact that our constitution was able to exist for 235 years is a significant achievement that should not be understated. In fact, we are the longest-standing democracy in the world with Switzerland in second trailing at just 174 years. This feat ought to compel us to ask the question: how? The US Constitution has undoubtedly had its fair share of challenges intellectually, politically, and militarily and every crisis has seen Americans rise up to the challenge and it is likely that similar crisis that our generation or our posterity must grapple with. Both fortunately and unfortunately, we can take solace in knowing that the crisis before us is not unprecedented.
Every challenge raised against the constitution can always be sourced on the grounds of our nation’s willful ignorance of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism does not simply mean constitutional law but is instead a theoretical doctrine enshrined in our polity. To these ends, it is not just a list of Supreme Court decisions or a list of words in the 1787 Constitution to memorize but rather a set of eternal principles that establishes the legitimacy of government. The Constitution can only serve to justly empower the government when the principles of justice are made inseparable from its very foundations of power. The issue, therefore, arises, that when the eternal principles of constitutionalism can be treated as malleable and inconvenient roadblocks, then there is no rational distinction between constitutional law and statute law.
Given that the basis of statute law is government for it is a government that creates it, we must then ask what the basis of constitutional law will be when we erase this distinction. If we do allow the government to be both the basis and thus ultimate arbitrator of constitutional and statute law, then on what grounds can we constrain the injustice of our own government’s actions? If we see our eternal principles as replaceable, then does that not mean that government can arbitrarily redefine the social contract and subsequently, the rights of the American people? If we fail to uphold constitutionalism, can the constitution continue to restrain government from replacing the consent of the governed with the consent of the governing?
These ominous consequences arise for a reason and that is because a constitution only has value when it is seen as something antecedent to government rather than a product thereof. James Madison writes in Federalist 51, “ In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The word, oblige, is a keyword in this quote for it is essential to our understanding of the meaning of this fundamental sentiment for there must be a compelling force that transcends both the government and the governed. It is imperative that we as Americans rediscover the basis upon which our Constitution of 1787 was founded. Any appreciation of our foundational documents allows us to see that the basis of the US Constitution lies not in the social sciences of historical and moral relativism but rather in the immutable truths of the laws of nature thus forming our moral understanding of individual rights.
Pictured is the deciding victory at the siege of Yorktown, ending the revolutionary war
Consequently, the only reason why anyone ought to consent to the government is that it is expected to secure those rights. The people that we have elected to make the laws are people too, neither beasts nor angels, and we must take this into account when deciding how laws are made, executed, and interpreted. We cannot afford to treat government or the notions of political justice with apathy. Lincoln warns us all of such an occurrence in the first of his Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, “I hate indifference to slavery because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”
Self-interest and apathy to the moral conditions and ends of politics will drive our Constitution to extinction if left unabated, combated only by the spirit of constitutionalism. Recovery of our US Constitution however first requires at a minimum, an understanding, and appreciation of our relationship to the eternal and immutable principles of reason and natural law. Rather than viewing the past with blind skepticism, we should instead approach the subject with an openness to consider what the Founding Fathers had considered to be their guiding principles as not rooted solely in their historical time period but instead in the constitution of nature for all generations to see. Perhaps then, the propositions in our Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution might indeed be true, and provided that reason does not have an expiration date, the arguments that animated the nation then, can animate us as a nation now.
Happy Constitution Day!