by JN Fenwick, former American History teacher, and author of In the Eye of the Storm
I have been a student of history, and a teacher of history for most of my life. The seeds of curiosity planted within me, at a very young age, prospered and grew into an undeniable passion.
Each successive moment of research, of knowledge gained, inspired more of the same. That is how curiosity works. It opens doorways revealed through the consistent application of critical thinking and context. It’s an endless quest for deeper understanding. The lessons we learn by studying the past are immeasurable.
Knowledge without application is futile. I do not know who said this, but that does not matter as much as the undeniable truth it points to.
In the case of history itself, I have discovered this undiminished truth: in studying the past we find ourselves. Our human nature, our desires, our failures, our continual struggles, and our successes play out across the pages of history. Across generations that lived and perished, just as we do. Just as we will.
I also believe that we, as the collective humanity we are, are inherently good and that we seek the same things. Namely, freedom, prosperity, and peace more than anything else. In that regard, we are no different than the founding generation.
If not, then there would be no explanation for America itself. America is “the last best hope of mankind” for a reason. I believe this to be just as true today as I did when I opened my first history book, a biography of Abraham Lincoln. I was 8 years old. Lincoln is still my favorite President.
From the beginning, America was a dream.
For centuries, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” had forsaken all they knew for the opportunity to reach these shores. Once here, they carved out of these uncharted lands, settlements, that grew into communities, that prospered into colonies, that eventually became states in a united nation.
It was not easy. The challenges they faced, and the losses they sustained were immense.
At times, they failed miserably, as humans do. Those colonies established for the purpose of religious freedom often turned around and suppressed that freedom in others. Greed often led to growth, but not without sacrificing the very freedoms that had inspired the journey to the New World in the first place.
England viewed the colonies as, not only an extension of the British Crown but also as its rightful property without any real care for the people inhabiting them. Maintaining that revenue source, holding that land, was all that mattered. In an age when landholdings defined the power of empires, America was a gem in England’s coffers, Quite simply, out of sight, out of mind, blinded the King and Parliament to the real dangers their actions were inciting until it was too late to turn the tide.
By this time in our history, too many had felt the yolk of British control squeezing the lifeblood from their bones.
Initially, the colonists simply demanded a voice. They believed they deserved a say in the crafting of the policies and laws affecting them. Not so far-fetched an idea from our vantage point. In their time, however, it was an act of treason.
When armed conflict between bands of American colonists and British soldiers began in April 1775, the Americans were ostensibly fighting only for their rights as subjects of the British crown.history.com
Their initial demands quickly changed, however. The crown asserted increased power by raising tariffs, stationing British armies on American soil, and insisting, by law, that colonists shelter and feed those armies in their own homes without any recompense. An increasing list of grievances soon turned the demand for representation into an outright and unapologetic cry for revolution.
Delegates to the First Continental Congress convened in the summer of 1775 to draft a formal statement outlining America’s grievances and intentions. First among them, was the formation of their own government free from the tyranny and oppression of the British monarchy.
The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, revised by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and presented and ratified with further changes during the second convening of the Continental Congress was no less than an act of treason. These men knew that. They knew that losing the already escalating fight would forfeit their lives. They signed it anyway.
Why? Because they believed wholeheartedly in the cause they were fighting for. To them, the greater danger, the greater evil lay in doing nothing. “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” said Franklin after signing the Declaration.
Together, they chose to hang whatever the outcome. And once dedicated to the path set before them, they did not waiver.
As Americans, we all know, or should know, the history of the Revolutionary War. What is important to this discussion, however, is not the war itself, but what came out of it.
From the very first instance of pen to paper, these men, who would become known in perpetuity as the Founding Fathers, chose their words carefully, purposefully, and with great intent.
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.Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, 1776
The Declaration of Independence was not in fact a string of fluffy words presenting an argument for the moment. The founders, the majority of them scholars who had read the philosophical writings of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, knew full well the position they were in. To that end, they also knew they were laying the foundation for a system of self-government based on ideals that, if not ultimately fulfilled in their own lifetimes, would have the very best opportunity to come to fruition in generations to come. Thus, the words they chose point to lasting, undeniable truths.
Yes, truths even they themselves believed in; believed in so emphatically, they were willing to die in defense of them.
We can argue their sincerity or lack thereof. Point out that while penning the words they were not living their truth. Discount them at best as dreamers, at worst as frauds. But we cannot discount the truth.
What truth? The one contained in our Nation’s history. As successive generations stood up, fought, and sacrificed to bring America ever closer to achieving the ideals the words they penned point to. The founders understood the Declaration’s strength lay not in the reality in which they wrote it, but in the true and lasting change it inspired.
The ideals in the Declaration are not merely American, but rather universal, and that is precisely what makes the United States exceptional. Not its reality at any given time, which may be worse or better than that of other states. The United States, rather, is exceptional in the universality of its argument, the ideals that inspire and shame succeeding generations, and that offer the characteristically American promise of improvement, change, growth, and hope for the future.Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, July 4, 2019
The Declaration of Independence was the first step in the journey to liberty. The Revolutionary War was the second. General Cornwallis’ surrender to General Washington’s troops at Yorktown, in 1781, solidified American independence.
Now what? The answer lies in the third step.
America had just won a brutal war to extricate itself from England’s control. Understandably, they feared any form of centralized governmental control. They had just thrown off the yoke of one and would not then turn around and don the yoke of another.
From the beginning, the Continental Congress understood the need for some sort of centralized government if they were to defeat Great Britain. They also realized they had to be very careful in how they proceeded to bring about this necessary end.
To many Americans, their union seemed to be simply a league of confederated states, and their Congress a diplomatic assemblage representing thirteen independent polities. The impetus for an effective central government lay in wartime urgency, the need for foreign recognition and aid, and the growth of national feeling.history.com
Most Americans, at the time, could at least agree on that. Creating and approving that entity though was an entirely separate matter.
Fear of any centralized authority prevented the fledgling country from establishing a government truly capable of sustaining it once the war had ended. The delegates took that fear to heart when they met in November 1777.
After many attempts, drafts, and revisions, the Continental Congress finally agreed on the Articles of Confederation. Their agreement, however, was merely the first step in the process. Their submission to the thirteen states for ratification was the second and decidedly more difficult step.
The ratification process took four long years and would not formally occur until March 1781, just six months prior to the end of the war.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first written constitution of the United States.
In short order, however, they would prove to be not only unsustainable but increasingly dangerous to the success of the new nation.
First, by design, the Congress established under the Articles was not strong enough to enforce laws or raise taxes. This made it difficult for America to repay its Revolutionary War debts. Consequently, it made America susceptible to foreign hostility and aggression. Not a very comforting thought considering the new country was still recovering from its fight for independence.
Second, the new Congress could not regulate commerce. Its only revenue stream came from the states, which had agreed that each would contribute, “according to the value of privately owned land within its borders.” Individual states determined the value of that land, and thus the amount contributed. This left Congress with an undependable income source with which to operate and fulfill America’s national obligations.
Finally, under the Articles, each state retained its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. Basically, the United States was thirteen autonomous governments that recognized Congress but didn’t support it according to any uniform standards.
What the Articles lacked, was the very thing Americans strove hard to avoid, a strong central government. Their inability to adequately address three of the most important hallmarks of effective government, economic organization, centralized leadership, and legislative efficiency, would eventually lead to the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution.
The Founding Fathers wanted the supreme law of the United States to be as perfect as they could make it, thus, they left nothing to chance.
The Principles of Liberty
The Principles of Liberty the founders underscored in their deliberations were the same principles that emboldened them to write the Declaration and preserver throughout the Revolutionary War. It was with these principles firmly in hand that they met in Philadelphia to discuss the future of the Articles of Confederation and by extension the future of the newly formed United States of America.
In the spring and summer of 1787, just ten years after the Declaration of Independence, 70 delegates appointed by the thirteen original states, met in Philadelphia with the directive from their states to revise the existing Articles of Confederation.
As history played out in those months between May and September, the results culminated in the United States Constitution, but it was not an easy path. The drafting process was arduous.
James Madison proposed his Virginia Plan, as an “upgrade” to the Articles, After heated and lengthy debates the delegates were no closer to a resolution than they were when they’d started.
They formed a Committee of Detail to draft an entirely new Constitution based on the Virginia Plan with Congress’ modifications, along with other proposed plans and the Articles themselves.
They discussed, debated, argued, and compromised on the proposed draft, section-by-section, clause-by-clause, in some cases sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word between August and September. It was that important.
Many of the compromises, though hard for us, some two-hundred years on, to understand, were born from necessity. The founders knew that if they were going to achieve their goal of a constitutional republic they had to be willing to meet each other halfway. And while they were masters at the art of debate, they were equally masterful at compromise.
They appointed a Committee of Style to prepare the agreed-upon final document. They also added the Preamble at the same time.
After 100 sweltering days of debate, compromise, and finally, agreement, the resulting document was as far from the Articles of Confederation as to be an entirely new Constitution. The framers knew this. And yet, as they had the Declaration, the delegates signed the prepared document and agreed to set about attaining its unanimous ratification.
Like the Preamble to the Declaration, the Preamble to the United States Constitution established the document’s purpose, parameters, and processes, before it ever went out the door.
WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.Preamble, United States Constitution, 1787
The framers once again made their intent clear, and in language already familiar. The very same document that had united the colonies in their fight for independence underpinned the foundation for the new republic the written constitution established.
They drafted the seven articles (and later, the twenty-seven amendments) with the sole purpose of creating a system of government that had the best chance of achieving and sustaining the republic into perpetuity.
The Preamble establishes WHO the framers wrote United States Constitution for.
“We the people of the United States.” Not we the Congress, we the government, or we the leaders of, but WE THE PEOPLE.
As they had established in the Declaration, the framers understood that the sole purpose and responsibility of this, or any government, is to secure and protect the rights and liberties of the governed. Principally, “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
It would be WE THE PEOPLE who would adopt the Constitution and live and die under the laws established therein. It would be from WE THE PEOPLE that the new government would receive and maintain the power it required to effectively govern. And it would be WE THE PEOPLE who would uphold the Constitution and the new republic it established.
The framers also understood that the new government’s power, though centrally located, came from the people.
To that end, they clearly defined why a strong central government was necessary along with the specific parameters under which it would operate. In granting it power, they assured the people that their government would function only within the specific boundaries established under the new Constitution.
The Preamble explained the why, whereas the Constitution itself established the how.
It distributed the government’s power across three distinct branches maintained through a defined structure of checks and balances and election laws. The framers knew full well that usurpation and tyranny were threats to every form of government, but they did their best to put systems and laws in place to significantly decrease their likelihood.
Finally, and most importantly, the Preamble gave the ultimate responsibility for the Constitution’s ratification and therefore its establishment as law right back to the people.
“We the People of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
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.Erwin Chemerinsky and Michael Stokes Paulsen, 2020
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, means exactly what it proposes.
The framers understood that it was never a given that they could achieve, much less maintain, a government of, by, and for the people. They knew that establishing it for their generation alone, would not create a system strong enough to sustain it. Therefore, they dedicated themselves to ensuring that what came out of the Revolutionary War was not a return to what had been before and that had failed, repeatedly, but to create something better.
They understood the prophetic, transformational, and lasting importance of the language they chose to use. More than that, they understood they were not simply writing a document for their lifetimes. They were authoring a document that would serve as the foundation for the successful building of a new nation. One that would progress and grow with the ages, allowing America to become the safe haven for Freedom and Liberty they envisioned it could be…the last best hope of earth.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy,” asked a woman bystander of Benjamin Franklin as the Constitutional Convention was ending. “A Republic, if you can keep it,” replied Franklin.
The question now is, can we keep it?
Over the course of our Nation’s history, the most serious threats to the United States Constitution are those that have allowed the three separated branches of government to expand their reach without being held in check for doing so.
While judicial activists cannot change the words of the Constitution, they can and often do change what those words mean. Substituting what you want the Constitution to mean is not what the founders meant when they gave the Judicial Branch the responsibility of “interpreting the law.”
Justice George Sutherland warned that while courts have the power of interpretation, they do not have the power of “amendment in the guise of interpretation.” This was in 1937, but his warning still holds true today. As it should. Because the Constitution still belongs to the people, not to the government.
Court-packing, the growth of the federal government, the administrative state, executive action, doing away with the filibuster, and dismantling the electoral college all have one thing in common. They are all antithetical to the Founding Fathers’ intention for a limited system of government. On the heels of the Revolution, they knew all too well what happens when government becomes more focused on itself rather than on its responsibility to the people.
An elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.James Madison, Federalist 84, 1788
This is why history is so important.
In order to protect and defend the Constitution, you have to understand it. Understanding it requires context and critical thinking skills. Because it’s not just the document itself that matters. It’s also the men who authored it and the events leading up to and following its creation.
The Declaration was an act of treason. They signed it. The Revolution was a bold, some felt unwinnable war. They won it. The Constitution began as an idea that led to a series of plans refined through negotiation and debate and then brought to fruition through compromise. It was ratified by all 13 states in 1789.
As the Continental Congress prepared to pursue unanimous ratification, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay began writing a series of articles and pamphlets focused on just that. The Federalist is by far the most comprehensive body of work on the U. S. Constitution in existence. It is still a primary reference for interpreting the Founding Fathers’ intentions as they were drafting the Constitution.
James Madison served as the fourth President of the United States. His greatest contributions to the U.S. Constitution were the Virginia Plan and The Bill of Rights.
Alexander Hamilton is credited with writing at least 51 of the articles that became known as The Federalist. According to history, they are his best works.
John Jay was appointed by George Washington as the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1789).
The Constitution became the Supreme Law of the Land upon its ratification. It accomplished what the Articles of Confederation never could: (1) It established a constitutional republic with shared powers between the states and the federal government; (2) It divided the federal government into three separate but equal branches tasked with specific and well-defined responsibilities; (3) It gave each branch checks on the others in order to limit and balance power; (4) It established election laws and requirements for holding public office, which includes taking the Oath of Affirmation; (5) It included an amendment process that was rigorous, effective, and necessary to ensure the sanctity of the document and the United States into perpetuity; (6) It included a Bill of Rights (1791) that ensured the protection of individual freedom, liberty, property, and life; (7) But it was to the people that it gave the most power.
The Constitution is our contract. It clearly defines and authorizes the central government’s power and exists wholly outside the government’s arbitrary will.
It is to the people that the Constitution gave authority to ordain and establish. It is for the people that the government it created was assigned purpose and given responsibility. It is from the people that it derived its power and of the people that it would maintain it. It still is.
There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 78, 1788
Authors Note: One of the best courses I took during my graduate work was a Constitution class based on the Federalist Papers. That course and the professor who taught it will forever have my gratitude. The lessons I learned inspired a pragmatic as well as a deeply held appreciation for the men who wrote it. Human beings to a one, all susceptible to the same ego, and the same pitfalls we are all susceptible to, they chose to come together, rise above, and dedicate themselves to creating what had never been created before. A system of self-government devoted above all else, to securing the rights, liberties, and freedoms of all its citizens. My biggest takeaway from that experience was how relevant our Constitution is in any age. It is the oldest constitution still in effect in the world today for a reason. What sets it apart was best summed up by Madison himself in 1787. I’ll leave you with his words and my encouragement to explore our Nation’s history, our Constitution, and our progress with a critical, but fair eye, and an open mind. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much we have in common with our founding generation.
The future and success of America is not in this Constitution, but in the laws of God upon which this Constitution is founded.James Madison, 1787