Editor’s Note: This is part of a series examining the Constitution and federalist documents in America today.
Humans came together to make laws for thousands of years before the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, but its revolutionary and transcendent influence on human history is difficult to understand on this side of its formation.
In a convergence of political theory and patriotic passions, a form of government previously unknown was created. It is difficult today to imagine governance before it or life without it.
For most of human experience, the aggressive assertion of authority over others determined who ruled. Maybe he was right. Countless stronger and more aggressive leaders have advanced their will over others.
However, there were sometimes moments that foreshadowed the idea of ââinherent rights of people and natural and appropriate limits in government. The Athenian assembly, the Roman Senate, the Magna Carta, the Plymouth Pact and, finally, the Constitution were all structured around the rights of the citizens and outlawing the authority of the collective.
Nevertheless, the preservation of individual freedoms, personal autonomy and the responsibilities of rulers towards the ruled were not systematically preached or believed outside the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the generations, the seemingly innate and vile desire of rulers and kings to exercise their hand over others has persisted, and they have continually crushed efforts to put these freedoms into a lasting framework.
What was this grain of freedom that was codified in the Constitution, and where did it come from? What prepared the authors’ inkwells?
Ancient writing provided the founders with inspiration in the necessary and proper discernment of judges, the shortcomings of mortal man, and the glory and rarity of selflessness.
Primarily through self-preservation, King John signed the Magna Carta, which encoded individual property and legal rights (at least for nobles) in 1215. In the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes advocated for economic liberalism, noting that in the interest of fair trade, individuals would enter into contracts that voluntarily waived elements of their natural rights in the interest of common trade.
Montesquieu, noting the excesses of the French nobility, concluded that the best government was divided government. John Locke put forward the idea that government should be best formed by and with the consent of the governed.
Each of these voices was known and considered by the authors of the Constitution. Many of them felt they were in a providential moment, with a unique clean slate on which to build a city on a hill. Their first endeavor, the Articles of Confederation, leaned too much in the direction of empowering state governments at the expense of the federal government and quickly proved unworkable.
Thus, the appeal to the constitutional convention. The lively and private deliberations of 55 statesmen during a hot summer revolutionized governance. James Madison’s detailed notes on this conclave in Philadelphia provide our best insight into the effort; the Federalist Papers (mainly the work of Alexander Hamilton), the biggest step back on their intention.
It is a unique convergence of character, learning and compromise that has resulted in this historic pact. The oldest participant, Benjamin Franklin, when asked what had been produced, replied simply: “A republic, ma’am, if you can keep it.”
To keep it, you have to understand its origins.
The Constitution was the product of scholars observing the failures of other experiments in governance. From their reflections on generations of political philosophers, they disaggregated authority between and among states and national government. They protected the minority from the risk of popular rule and laid the groundwork for the ultimate dissolution of the continent’s greatest scourge, slavery.
If longevity is the measure of sparkle, then let the longer term as a democracy – 237 years to date – serve as a strong witness.
At some point in the future, humans could inhabit new worlds. If wise and educated rulers were charged with how best to rule these worlds, a construct that honors individual rights and religious expression, aspires to equality for all, requires the consent of the governed, says individual industry with protected property rights and establishes intractable tensions where ambition verifies ambition, could well be a compelling thought experiment.
Such a constitution would rely heavily on the great document that governs âwe the peopleâ today.
â¢ Ronny Just is an executive at Georgia Power, one of the country’s largest utilities. He has worked in public policy for 35 years.