One of the most encouraging developments in American politics is the increased interest and participation by many people across our country. In a way, it is unfortunate that it took the combination of bail-outs, excessive spending, global warming taxes and regulations, and government-mandated health care for so many Americans to rise up and take action. But they have, and it is a good thing.
The increased political involvement has slowed the pace of the liberal agenda. Even while many of us are concerned about the new health care law and its intrusion into our lives, it is much different than originally envisioned by the Democrat-controlled Congress. They did not get the bill they want because more people got engaged and let Washington know they did not support the public option, for example. Greater participation in sorting through the issues of the day also provides an opportunity for all of us to think deeper about our constitutional system and the role of government in our lives. The question is not just whether specific proposals are a good or bad idea. The issues go back as far as our nation’s founding, and they involve the natural tension between the pursuit of equality and the yearning for freedom.
The Foundation: The Declaration of Independence
Since 1776, generations of Americans have come to regard the Declaration of Independence as a nearly sacred text, providing the foundation of the relationship between American citizens and their government.
The crucial section of the Declaration says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Each phrase carries much meaning:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident” – The great truths contained in the Declaration stand on their own. They are “self-evident” and require no supporting testimony or further evidence to prove their truth. They are foundational.
“All men are created equal.” – It took us time and a considerable amount of blood to get to the point where “all men” really means all men and all women, but we are there. Each individual has worth, and each should have opportunity.
“Endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights” – Our worth and our ‘rights’ come from our Creator. They do not originate with the government, further establishing the foundational nature of the rights. Those rights cannot be taken away; they are inalienable, and they belong to each individual, not to a group or category of individuals, but to every individual.
“Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – The list is not exclusive, but it includes the essentials. Our Creator gives us life and liberty. He also gives us the opportunity to pursue happiness as each individual defines it. Of course, the right to pursue happiness is not the same as the right to have happiness provided to you. Pursuit is active—it requires effort.
The Founder’s notion of liberty can be misunderstood. As Matthew Spalding writes in We Still Hold These Truths, 2009 (p. 8-9)
“Liberty is the essential idea that is America. It is at once our greatest inheritance, our greatest achievement, and our greatest bequest to posterity.” There is a distinction between freedom and liberty. Freedom is a general lack of restraint. “But from the Founders’ view, freedom must be understood within the context of constitutional and moral order, which meant reasonable limits and cultural bounds. Liberty means the rightful exercise of freedom, the balancing of rights and responsibilities.”
“To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” – The purpose of government is to secure or protect those Creator-given rights.
“Deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” – The powers of government to secure the Creator-given rights must be just, and they come from the consent of the people. Thus, the people loan to government some of the power given to the people by the Creator, but on a limited basis and only for the legitimate purposes of governing.
The Framework: Our Constitution
The Declaration of Independence provides us the philosophical underpinning of our citizens’ relationship with their government. The Constitution provides us with the more practical framework of the limited government instituted to protect our Created-given rights.
It is a written constitution with clear words that are available for all to read and understand, and those words trump any President or Supreme Court’s wishes in dealing with the problems of the day. This written Constitution provides the basis for the rule of law – laws apply equally to all and no one is above or beyond its reach.
Two key features of the U.S. Constitution stand out. One is that it establishes a federal government of limited powers. Second, it divides power among three branches of government.
The Constitution lists specific powers given to the three branches of the federal government. They are not illustrative examples; they are the complete list of powers given to the federal government. The Tenth Amendment makes clear that those powers not explicitly given to the three branches are reserved to the people and to the individual states.
Those powers which are given to the federal government are divided among three separate and equal The Founders knew the problems that would develop if any one of the branches became dominant. In the modern communications era, however, the
Executive, speaking with one voice, has the upper hand. And in recent years Congress has been too willing to follow along behind a President of the same party. For government to function as intended, each branch must stand up to its proper constitutional role.