In a warm room in Philadelphia, 39 men signed the document that formed our nation. With each passing year, America continues her record of having the longest on-going constitutional republic in history.
“Done…the seventeenth day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
This is the last line of the U.S. Constitution. Signer of the Constitution James McHenry noted in a diary entry (published in the American Historical Review, 1906), that after Ben Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, he was asked by Mrs. Elizabeth Powel of Philadelphia: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined “republic”: “exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people.”
In other words, a republic is where the people are king, ruling through their representatives. The Pledge of Allegiance is to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands.” When someone dishonor the flag, what they are saying is, they no longer want to be king.
Yale President Ezra Stiles, stated in 1788: “All the forms of civil polity have been tried by mankind, except one: and that seems to have been reserved in Providence to be realized in America. … Most states of all ages … have been founded in rapacity, usurpation & injustice.”
John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, stated Sept. 8, 1777: “The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of deliberating upon, and choosing the forms of government under which they should live. All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances.”
James Wilson, who signed the Declaration and Constitution and was appointed to the Supreme Court by George Washington, remarked at Pennsylvania’s ratifying convention, Nov. 26, 1787: “Governments, in general, have been the result of force, of fraud, and accident. After a period of 6,000 years has elapsed since the creation, the United States exhibit to the world the first instance … of a nation … assembling voluntarily … and deciding calmly concerning that system of government under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live.”
John Adams wrote in his “Notes on Canon & Feudal Law,” 1765: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence … as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”
Ronald Reagan stated in 1961: “In this country of ours took place the greatest revolution that has ever taken place in the world’s history. Every other revolution simply exchanged one set of rulers for another.”
Theodore Roosevelt stated Oct. 24, 1903: “In no other place and at no other time has the experiment of government of the people, by the people, for the people, been tried on so vast a scale as here in our own country.”
In 1802, Daniel Webster stated in a Fourth of July Oration: “The history of the world is before us … The civil, the social, the Christian virtues are requisite to render us worthy the continuation of that government which is the freest on earth.”
After the U.S. Constitution was written, it needed to be ratified by nine states in order to go into effect. Eight states had ratified it, and New Hampshire was in line to be the ninth, but disagreements caused it to stall. New Hampshire reconvened its ratifying convention in June of 1788. Harvard President Rev. Samuel Langdon gave an address which was instrumental in convincing the delegates to ratify the Constitution.
The Portsmouth Daily Evening Times, Jan. 1, 1891, acknowledged Rev. Samuel Langdon’s influence: “by his voice and example he contributed more perhaps, than any other man to the favorable action of that body.”
In his address was titled “The Republic of the Israelites an example to the American States,” June 5, 1788, Langdon stated: “Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union, and see this application plainly. … That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured … and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ … a complete revelation of his will … it will be your wisdom … to … adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.”
Langdon continued: “The Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages. … Government … on republican principles, required laws; without which it must have degenerated immediately into … absolute monarchy. … How unexampled was this quick progress of the Israelites, from abject slavery, ignorance, and almost total want of order, to a national establishment perfected in all its parts far beyond all other kingdoms and states! From a mere mob, to a well regulated nation, under a government and laws far superior to what any other nation could boast! …”
Langdon concluded: “It was a long time after the law of Moses was given before the rest of the world knew any thing of government by law. … It was six hundred years after Moses before … Grecian republics received a very imperfect … code of laws from Lycurgus. It was about five hundred years from the first founding of the celebrated Roman empire … before the first laws of that empire.”
After Langdon’s address, New Hampshire’s delegates voted to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus putting it into effect.
Professors Donald S. Lutz and Charles S. Hyneman published an article in American Political Science Review, 1984, titled “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late 18th-Century American Political Thought.” They examined nearly 15,000 writings of the 55 writers of the U.S. Constitution, including newspaper articles, pamphlets, books and monographs, and discovered that the Bible, especially the book of Deuteronomy, contributed 34 percent of all direct quotes made by the Founders. When indirect Bible citations were included, the percentage rose even higher.
Benjamin Franklin wrote to the editor of the Federal Gazette, April 8, 1788 (“The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787,” Farrand’s Records, Vol. 3, CXCV, pp. 296-297; “Documentary History of the Constitution,” IV, 567-571): “I beg I may not be understood to infer, that our general Convention was divinely inspired when it form’d the new federal Constitution … yet I must own I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenc’d, guided and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent Beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live & move and have their being.”
Alexander Hamilton wrote of the Constitution in his “Letters of Caesar,” 1787: “Whether the New Constitution, if adopted, will prove adequate to such desirable ends, time, the mother of events, will show. For my own part, I sincerely esteem it a system, which, without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests.” (Paul L. Ford, “Essays on the Constitution of the United States,” Historical Printing Club, Brooklyn, 1892, pg 245).
Opening the Constitutional Convention, George Washington stated: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”
Ten days after his inauguration, President Washington wrote to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, May 10, 1789: “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed by the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.”
President Washington, the same week Congress passed the Bill of Rights, declared, Oct. 3, 1789: “Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend … a Day of Public Thanksgiving and Prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness’ … I do recommend … the 26th day of November … to be devoted by the People of these United States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks … for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.”
Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “America is another name for opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of Divine Providence in behalf of the human race.”
G.K. Chersterton wrote in “What is America” (‘What I Saw In America,” 1922): “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on creed. That creed is set forth … in the Declaration of Independence … that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice. … The Declaration … certainly does condemn … atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived.”
Daniel Webster stated: “Miracles do not cluster. That which has happened but once in six thousand years, cannot be expected to happen often. … Hold on, my friends, to the Constitution of your country and the government established under it. … Such a government, once destroyed, would have a void to be filled, perhaps for centuries, with evolution and tumult, riot and despotism.”
U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge stated in 1919: “The United States is the world’s best hope. … Beware how you trifle with your marvelous inheritance … for if we stumble & fall, freedom & civilization everywhere will go down in ruin.”
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The Preamble of the U.S. Constitution—the document’s famous first fifty-two words— introduces everything that is to follow in the Constitution’s seven articles and twenty-seven amendments. It proclaims who is adopting this Constitution: “We the People of the United States.” It describes why it is being adopted—the purposes behind the enactment of America’s charter of government. And it describes what is being adopted: “this Constitution”—a single authoritative written text to serve as fundamental law of the land. Written constitutionalism was a distinctively American innovation, and one that the framing generation considered the new nation’s greatest contribution to the science of government.
The word “preamble,” while accurate, does not quite capture the full importance of this provision. “Preamble” might be taken—we think wrongly—to imply that these words are merely an opening rhetorical flourish or frill without meaningful effect. To be sure, “preamble” usefully conveys the idea that this provision does not itself confer or delineate powers of government or rights of citizens. Those are set forth in the substantive articles and amendments that follow in the main body of the Constitution’s text. It was well understood at the time of enactment that preambles in legal documents were not themselves substantive provisions and thus should not be read to contradict, expand, or contract the document’s substantive terms.
But that does not mean the Constitution’s Preamble lacks its own legal force. Quite the contrary, it is the provision of the document that declares the enactment of the provisions that follow. Indeed, the Preamble has sometimes been termed the “Enacting Clause” of the Constitution, in that it declares the fact of adoption of the Constitution (once sufficient states had ratified it): “We the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Importantly, the Preamble declares who is enacting this Constitution—the people of “the United States.” The document is the collective enactment of all U.S. citizens. The Constitution is “owned” (so to speak) by the people, not by the government or any branch thereof. We the People are the stewards of the U.S. Constitution and remain ultimately responsible for its continued existence and its faithful interpretation.
It is sometimes observed that the language “We the People of the United States” was inserted at the Constitutional Convention by the “Committee of Style,” which chose those words—rather than “We the People of the States of . . .”, followed by a listing of the thirteen states, for a simple practical reason: it was unclear how many states would actually ratify the proposed new constitution. (Article VII declared that the Constitution would come into effect once nine of thirteen states had ratified it; and as it happened two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, did not ratify until after George Washington had been inaugurated as the first President under the Constitution.) The Committee of Style thus could not safely choose to list all of the states in the Preamble. So they settled on the language of both “We the People of the United States.”
Nonetheless, the language was consciously chosen. Regardless of its origins in practical considerations or as a matter of “style,” the language actually chosen has important substantive consequences. “We the People of the United States” strongly supports the idea that the Constitution is one for a unified nation, rather than a treaty of separate sovereign states. (This, of course, had been the arrangement under the Articles of Confederation, the document the Constitution was designed to replace.) The idea of nationhood is then confirmed by the first reason recited in the Preamble for adopting the new Constitution—“to form a more perfect Union.” On the eve of the Civil
The other purposes for adopting the Constitution, recited by the Preamble— to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”—embody the aspirations that We the People have for our Constitution, and that were expected to flow from the substantive provisions that follow. The stated goal is to create a government that will meet the needs of the people.
As noted, the Preamble’s statements of purpose do not themselves grant powers or confer rights; the substantive provisions in the main body of the Constitution do that. There is not, for example, a general government power to do whatever it judges will “promote the general Welfare.” The national government’s powers are specified in Article I and other provisions of the Constitution, not the Preamble. Congress has never relied on the Preamble alone as the basis for a claimed power to enact a law, and the Supreme Court has never relied on the Preamble as the sole basis for any constitutional decision. Still, the declared purposes for the Constitution can assist in understanding, interpreting, and applying the specific powers listed in the articles, for the simple reason that the Constitution should be interpreted in a manner that is faithful to its purposes.
Finally, the Preamble declares that what the people have ordained and established is “this Constitution”—referring, obviously enough, to the written document that the Preamble introduces. That language is repeated in the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, which declares that “this Constitution” shall be the supreme law for the entire nation. The written nature of the Constitution as a single binding text matters and was important to the framing generation. The U.S. Constitution contrasts with the arrangement of nations like Great Britain, whose “constitution” is a looser collection of written and unwritten traditions constituting the established practice over time. America has a written constitution, not an unwritten one. The boundaries of what may be said and done in the name of the Constitution are marked by the words, phrases, and structure of the document itself. To be sure, there are disputes over what those words mean and how they are to be applied. But the enterprise of written constitutionalism is, at its core, the faithful interpretation and application of a written document adopted by the people as supreme law: “this Constitution for the United States of America.”1
Compare this to the current US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).. which is what our Government HAS BECOME is ~ 104 MILLION words and would take about 6000 hours to read it. Those who work with and through these documents after years often come across wording that even lawyers can’t understand. The entire CFR is a monument in and of itself mocking what the founders wanted for our way of government …2
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