by JN Fenwick, former American History teacher and author
I have been a student of history, 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 inspires an endless search for a deeper and deeper understanding. It opens doorways revealed only through the application of lessons learned and through mindful awareness of the critical thinking processes that revealed them in the first place.
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 repeatedly, this undiminished truth: in the study of and resulting understanding gained from history, we find ourselves. Our human nature, our desires, our failures, our continual struggles, our successes, all play out across those pages, across those 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 righteousness, more than anything else.
If not, then there would be no explanation for America itself. America is referred to as “the last best hope of earth” for a reason. I believe this. And I will share with you, humbly and truthfully why, now.
The Continental Congress, Philadelphia, 1787. Image by Shutterstock | Licensed for use.
From the beginning, America was but 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 a united nation.
It was not easy. The challenges they faced, the losses they sustained were immense. One need only read the histories of Jamestown, Roanoke, Plymouth, to glean but a glimpse of the battles they lost, the victories they won. It is compelling and showcases most vividly the strength of the human spirit within us all.
At times, they failed miserably, as humans are want to do. Those colonies established for the purpose of religious freedom often turned around and suppressed that freedom in others. Greed for money and power, at times, became the impetus for growth at the cost of 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 the coffers of English prestige and dominance. 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, representation. Was it so farfetched for them to believe that they deserved a say in the crafting of the policies and laws affecting them? Most assuredly not. And yet, in an age that still believed in the “divine right of kings,” their very demand for a voice was viewed as revolutionary and treasonous.
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 crownhistory.com
Their initial demands quickly changed, however. As the crown asserted increased power, raising tariffs, stationing British armies on American soil, insisting, by law, that colonists shelter and feed those armies in their own homes without any recompense, along with a long list of other grievances, it wasn’t long before the initial demand for representation turned into an outright and unapologetic 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, 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? Why would a group of seemingly intelligent men put their names, evidence of what was viewed as treachery, on a document and then seal and deliver it directly into the hands of the people who, had the Revolution been lost, would ensure their ultimate fate?
Simply, because they believed wholeheartedly and unashamedly 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.
We all know or should know as Americans, 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 John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Thomas Hobbes, knew full well the position they were in. To that end, they also knew they were building the foundation for a living entity, 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 interminably their sincerity or lack thereof. Point out that while penning the words they were not living their truths. Discount them at best as dreamers, at worst as frauds. But we cannot discount truth.
What truth, you may wonder? The truth that was realized as those words, written by first-generation Americans, were taken to heart and soul by successive generations who did fight for them; who did stand up for them and demand change that brought us ever closer to achieving them. The Founders understood that the legacy of the Declaration, rather than the reality in which it was written, was the true ideal. To them, the Declaration was a looking glass that exposed the past, but that also served as a conduit for true and lasting change.
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
That is the truth they held, the truth they pointed to, the truth they pointed us to.
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.
The Battle of Yorktown, General George Washington accepting the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis. October 19, 1781. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1876. Image courtesy of Shutterstock | Licensed for use.
Now what? The answer lies in the third step.
America had just won a brutal war. People were tired. They were also fearful of anything that stunk 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 Constitutional 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.
During the early years of the war belief that the new nation must have a constitutional order appropriate to its republican character was evident. However, fear of central authority inhibited the creation of such a government, and widely shared political theory held that a republic could not adequately serve a large nation such as the United States. The legislators of a large republic would be unable to remain in touch with the people they represented, and the republic would inevitably degenerate into a tyranny.”History.com
That was their fear. And that fear was taken to heart by the delegates who met in November 1777. After many attempts, drafts, and revisions, the Articles of Confederation were finally agreed upon by the Continental Congress. 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.
Keep in mind, the Revolutionary War was being fought at the same time the Articles were being drafted and submitted for approval. 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, it 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 very 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.” It was left up to the individual states to determine 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 Articles established thirteen seemingly autonomous governments, and though they recognized Congress, they were not held to any uniform standards for how they were required to support it.
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.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock | Licensed for use.
The Founders wanted the supreme law of the United States to be as perfect as they could make it, thus, they left nothing to chance.
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’s Virginia Plan, first proposed as an “upgrade” to the Articles, was fiercely debated. However, no agreement could be reached.
A Committee of Detail was then formed to draft the new Constitution based on the Virginia Plan with the Constitutional Congress’ modifications, along with other proposed plans and the Articles themselves.
Between August and September, this proposed draft was discussed, debated, argued and compromised on, section-by-section, clause-by-clause, in some cases sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word. It was that important.
Many of the compromises, though hard for us, some two-hundred years on, to understand, were born from necessity. For a compelling inside look at that Summer of 1787, I encourage you to read Tempest at Dawn, by James D. Best. Based on the diaries of Madison and other delegates, along with correspondence and other written records of the day, Best’s book is like having a front-row seat to the Convention and the writing of our Constitution.
Once a final draft was agreed upon, a Committee of Style was appointed to prepare the document that would eventually be unanimously ratified by all 13 original states. It was during this phase that the Preamble was added.
After 100 sweltering days of debate, compromise, and final agreement, the resulting document was as far from the Articles 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.
The seven articles (and later, the twenty-seven amendments), predicated on those same commonly held truths were drafted 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 makes abundantly clear WHO the Constitution was established 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 of the governed. Principally, that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. And that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
It was implicitly understood that 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, and only 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 and strengthen the new republic or overturn it.
The framers also understood that the new government’s power, though centrally located, was granted only in so far as it served the will of 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, the people were assured that their government under the new Constitution was established, “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.”
The Preamble explained the why, whereas the Constitution itself established the how.
The power granted by the people would be distributed across three distinct branches and 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 gives 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. That government is created OF the people, instituted BY the people, and perpetuated FOR the people.
It was never a given that it could be accomplished, much less maintained. The Framers understood that. They knew that establishing this republic for their generation alone, would not create a system strong enough to sustain its ideals. Therefore, they dedicated themselves, most rigorously, 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. Something more. Something lasting.
They understood the prophetic, transformational, and lasting importance of the language they chose to use. More than that, they understood that 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?
In the past few decades, we have witnessed repeated attempts to undermine, reimagine, and thwart the Constitution our Founding Fathers sacrificed so much for.
More frighteningly, we are witnessing the emergence of an elite class that holds as their right, the establishment of a ruling class that benefits from intolerance and suppression. That seeks to divide, for the sole purpose of conquering. How are they any different than the monarchies of the past, the totalitarian dictators, both past and present, who have subjugated the masses for their own gain, or the communist and terrorist regimes that continue to seek dominance to this day? They are not any different.
And the only thing standing between WE THE PEOPLE and them, is the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the legacy of a founding generation willing to “pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to its creation.
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”– James Madison, Federalist 47, 1788