James Madison said “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Of course we’re not, so he drafted a governing document that can fit in your pocket. 234 years ago today, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and signed their names to the Constitution of the United States, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” for themselves and posterity. It was the world’s first governing document established by citizens, who would no longer be governed by the whims of a king.
Conceived by a group of elite intellectuals who presented spirited arguments to the people, their political compromises created a mechanism of checks and balances between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of government. Madison said “the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.” Some of the vigorous debates are published today as The Federalist Papers where Madison presented his points of view, often in opposition to Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
The checks and balances were the Founders’ recognition of the corrupting influence of power. Advocating for regular elections, Hamilton observed that “the natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.” Concerned about factions and biases, Thomas Jefferson described the Constitution as a mechanism “to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power.”
Modest enough to know their arrangement was not totally perfect, Article 5 established a process to amend the Constitution. The first ten amendments, called The Bill of Rights, occurred over the initial year of ratification and restricted the federal government from making laws that inhibit the free exercise of speech, religion, assembly and the press. The Bill of Rights also protects individuals’ privacy, private property, the right to bear arms, and limits the power of prosecutions and lawsuits.
The Ninth Amendment states that enumerating such rights does not deny other rights which are retained by the people. The Tenth Amendment reserves any powers not delineated in the Constitution for the States and the people. Seventeen subsequent amendments were ratified from 1794 through 1992, in Article 5’s deliberately difficult process.
Having a government empowered and controlled by the people led the United States of America to grow into the world’s indispensable nation. Our institutions and industries have advanced the human condition more than any other time in history, setting an example for the rest of the world. Countries that followed our lead have enjoyed similar benefits for their people. The US Constitution is the world’s oldest governing document, and the most copied. After signing his name to it, Benjamin Franklin said “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.”
Enjoy your liberty!