September 20, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
The country has quietly acknowledged another Constitution Day. September 17 is much less vivid in the American imagination than its political soul mate, the Fourth of July. On the Fourth, as we familiarly call it, we get jubilation: hot dogs, fireworks! On the Seventeenth—and no one would presume such familiarity as to call it the Seventeenth—if we observe the occasion at all, we get sober reflection (if we are on practically any college campus, federal law actually compels us to observe the day, as if it were punishment for our civic transgressions). But the two dates bring to mind each year events that are joined to one another forever in American history.
Independence Day will always look forward to its consummation on Constitution Day, and Constitution Day will always be rooted in the principles famously proclaimed on Independence Day. The days are as inseparable in their political significance as are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which tower above all other documents in the American story.
When the American Revolutionaries declared independence on July 4, 1776, they proclaimed to the world the American understanding of the principles of lawful government, beginning with the self evident truth that “all men are created equal.” To paraphrase Alexander Hamilton, this was one of those primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent American political reasonings must depend. An immediate inference from this primary truth is that the just powers of government are derived, not from the divine right of kings, but from the consent of the governed. And the legitimate purpose of government is not to win glory for the king but to secure the equal natural rights of the governed. Eleven years later, it was in light of those principles, and for their sake, that delegates to the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, signed the Constitution that resulted from their summer-long reasonings and recommended it to the states in hopes of forming “a more perfect Union.” Americans had to be a constitutional people already in order to conceive of the Constitution. But such a people was a novelty. As James Madison writes in The Federalist #53,
The important distinction so well understood in America between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government, seems to have been little understood and less observed by any other country.
Some scores of years down the American road, on the eve of his great trial and the greatest crisis of the Union and the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln meditated on the relation between the Union and the Constitution and the Declaration. He had in mind a beautiful passage from Proverbs (25:11)—”a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”—as he wrote a private note to himself sometime after his election as president in November, 1860, and before his inauguration in March, 1861. He reflected on the blessings enjoyed by the United States—our “free government” and “great prosperity.” “All this,” he writes, “is not the result of accident.”
It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity.…
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.
What a blessing to us, as Lincoln said, that the American Revolutionaries asserted that principle as they did. What a blessing that the generation of the framing and ratification acted as they did to establish a “more perfect Union” to vindicate and secure that principle. In the period of the American Founding, from the Revolution to the establishment of the Constitution, Americans displayed statesmanship unsurpassed in the history of human freedom. Any freedom and prosperity we enjoy today is, as Lincoln understood in his time of constitutional crisis, a legacy of that statesmanship—an inheritance of apples of gold in pictures of silver.
It is a hallmark of this Congress to take the Constitution seriously, and it is a widely perceived constitutional crisis of our own that led to the election of such a Congress. If we want to pass on to our children undiminished the freedom and prosperity we have been so fortunate to inherit, we will have to display constitutional statesmanship worthy of the founders and of Lincoln. We should take heart from their example and from the rich legacy they bequeathed to us, which makes our task much easier than it might be.