The success of the American Republic is directly traceable to the wisdom and work of the 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a constitution designed not so much to empower government, but to limit that power. Forrest McDonald, perhaps the most influential of historians on the intellectual origins of the Constitution, claimed it could not have been written by any other 55 men at any other time in history. At fewer than 8,000 words, it’s a short document when compared to the fundamental documents of other nations and it has, in spite of its critics, stood up remarkably well since its adoption in 1789.
Various nations have written and adopted more than 900 constitutions since 1789. India’s is perhaps the longest at something like 146,000 words, and most don’t hold up very well. The average life of a constitution is around 19 years, which in itself makes ours unique.
New nations craving freedom have often looked to the work of those 55 Americans for guidance, but few have looked as closely as the men and women who gathered in the newly free Estonia in 1991 to write a new constitution for their country.
I attended the final of 30 sessions of the Constitutional Assembly in early 1992. The delegates ranged from a concert pianist to a plumber, and they were working from a draft prepared by a fellow by the name of Juri Adams, a name as close to our own John Adams as one could wish.
Juri Adams was an intellectual who years before had been demoted and sent by the Communist regime to serve as night watchman at a chicken farm. He told me that his understanding of the American founding and its importance to his country was a gift from the Communists because “the night watchman at a chicken farm has a lot of time to read and study.”
But Adams wasn’t the only attendee at the Estonian Assembly familiar with the American founding. During the debates, speaker after speaker cited the comments of Adams and others, and evinced a familiarity with the details of the debates and compromises struck in Philadelphia so many years before that made an American proud and underscored the importance of what went on there.
The men who drafted our Constitution had no illusions about those in power. They had, after all, lived under the absolute power of a hereditary monarch and fought a revolution to regain the rights they believed were theirs. They weren’t about to trust their futures to another monarch, whether ordained by God or elected by the people. They ascribed to Lord Acton’s observation that “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and were convinced that if they could prevent future officials of the new republic from acquiring such power, they might be able to create a free state. It is this belief that led to the constitutional separation and division of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the new government and, prior to its ratification, to the adoption of a Bill of Rights that enumerated things the new government could not do in pursuing the goals set out for it in the Constitution itself.
The compromises that led to the adoption of the Constitution were controversial at the time they were struck. Those involving slavery are the most discussed today, but just as serious were those involving the nature and power of the new nation’s chief executive and the balance between the power of the new national government and the states calling it into being. The Bill of Rights was added as a condition of ratification by those who believed it essential that certain fundamental rights be enumerated as sacrosanct. The debates over ratification were contentious, but once ratified, the Constitution established the framework that allowed the new nation to grow and prosper as the freest nation in history.
It’s been amended since, of course, as those who drafted it expected it would be. They also knew, one suspects, that it would be attacked by those who found it cumbersome. Residents from the beginning have tended to seek more power, and intellectuals with a desire to remake society have chafed at the constraints the Founders placed on those who would do so. Woodrow Wilson, who favored a much stronger executive and a parliamentary system, was the first president to openly attack it, and since then many have tried to rewrite it through reinterpretation of the Founders’ words.
A member of Congress said a few years ago that the Constitution only means what the Supreme Court says it means, but as the high court itself has acknowledged, it also means what the Founders meant it to mean.
As long as we, those we elect and the judges charged with its interpretation appreciate the genius of the Constitution, we will be able to preserve and enjoy the freedoms they worked so hard to guarantee.
• David Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.
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