(Editor's note: This commentary is excerpted from a piece that originally was published March 20, 2003, and is posted in honor of Constitution Day, which is celebrated annually on Sept. 17.)
My topic tonight is “The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Brilliance of the Founders.” I am not a constitutional scholar, though I revere the document and regard its creation as a seminal event in the history of mankind. I am an economist and historian who appreciates the ideas that animated the Founders when they gathered to craft the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, two centuries and 16 years ago. I would like to address the Constitution in a way that may be a little different than you are accustomed to at this annual event — by focusing on the events preceding the Constitution that helped shape the thinking of those great patriots. In fact, I want to start with events that preceded and led directly to the Declaration of Independence itself, with the hope that illuminating that period and that document will allow us to better understand the Constitution and the contextual experiences in which it was written.
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 is one of the most important documents in political history. It had a profound impact upon the world at the time, and it still resonates. It had to be written before there could even be a Constitution, for obvious reasons. And the ideas that went into it were very much on the minds of the men who gathered at Philadelphia 11 years later to create the Constitution.
The Founding generation’s dissatisfaction with the Mother country stemmed from a renaissance in ideas about individual liberty and the role of government. That renaissance in the 18th century occurred amid a realization on the part of the colonists that the Mother country was increasingly denying them the traditional rights of Englishmen. When it came to ideas, the men who wrote the Declaration in 1776 were products of the Enlightenment. Because they demanded rational thought, they came to reject the facetious and pompous claims of governments that citizens existed to serve the state. The writings of scholars like John Locke and David Hume imbued in them a healthy respect for the individual. Around the middle of the 18th century, the British government exacerbated matters by its callous treatment of its subjects on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1760, George III became King of Great Britain. His determination to exert British authority effectively ended a long period of “salutary neglect,” during which time colonial America benefited from British protection but was not bludgeoned by micromanagement from London. The sixteen-year period from George III’s ascendancy until the Declaration was punctuated by a series of conflicts and controversies, some of which I will mention here:
In 1761, Britain exerted its authority by issuing “writs of assistance” — nothing less than searches of private property without warrants. Colonial attorney James Otis led Boston merchants in protesting this action as a denial of a right that Englishmen still had back in England.
In 1763, the King vetoed a law of Virginia, which set salaries for parsons in the Anglican Church in that colony. George III felt the parsons were deserving of higher pay that Virginians wanted to pay them. A case could be made that the parsons were undercompensated, but to the colonists, this became an issue of distant meddling in local affairs.
The Seven Year’s War, known also as the French and Indian War, came to an end in 1763 with the defeat of the French and their expulsion from most of North America. Americans had paid a heavy price in lives and treasure but Britain insisted after the war that the colonies pay more of Britain’s share of the conflict. The British imposed taxes not just for that purpose, but also for the continued presence in the colonies of a large military force. With the French gone, the colonists didn’t see the need for such a presence or its price tag.
In 1764, Britain imposed the Sugar Act — intended to raise revenue for Britain and discourage colonial trade in the Caribbean. But the most objectionable aspect of the Sugar Act was its provision for violators (smugglers and tax evaders) to be tried not in normal courts of law as other Englishmen, but in “admiralty” courts — military tribunals often held on ships at sea.
In 1765, the infamous Stamp Act was passed in London, requiring the colonists to purchase stamps for placement on certain documents and publications. The revenue was to pay for the stationing of British troops on American soil. For the first time from New England to the deep South, the cry of “No Taxation Without Representation!” was heard. To be taxed by a Parliament 3,000 miles away, a legislature in which the colonists had no elected representatives, was regarded as odious by increasingly liberty-minded and principled Americans.
A boycott of British goods and widespread resistance to British tax collectors prompted the repeal of the Stamp Act within a year but Parliament quickly followed up the repeal by passing the Declaratory Act in 1766. It asserted the British government’s authority to impose upon the colonies any and all measures it deemed appropriate.
Ignoring the colonists’ objections to taxation without representation, Parliament also passed the Townshend Acts — import duties on glass, lead, paper and tea.
In 1767, Parliament suspended the New York legislature because it refused to provide British soldiers with all of the provisions London had ordered. Americans responded with objections embodied in what was known as the “Massachusetts Circular Letter” in which they asserted that London had no right to tax people who were did not have elected representatives in its Parliament. The Letter earned enough support among legislators in Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina that London responded by suspending the legislatures of those three colonies.
Controversies continued to flare until a major escalation with the famous “Boston Tea Party” of 1773. Objecting to both the tax on tea and a British government grant of monopoly to the East India Tea Company, American patriots in Boston boarded three of the King’s vessels at night and tossed his tea into the harbor.
Britain responded by closing the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. In 1774, the Quartering Act was passed in London. It meant that the British governor of any colony could order private property owners to make their homes available to British troops. General Gage was made military governor of Massachusetts, which meant that Massachusetts citizens were to be governed by military, not civilian, rule.
The situation degenerated quickly until that fateful day in April 1775 when “the shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington. The British were on a march to apprehend two colonial patriots, John Hancock and John Adams, and a reported stockpile of arms at Concord. The skirmish at Lexington prompted an eloquent address in the Virginia House of Burgesses by a young firebrand named Patrick Henry. The following is an excerpt from that famous speech:
“. . . If we wish to be free — if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending — if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained — we must fight! I repeat, sir, we must fight! . . . Gentlemen may cry ‘Peace, Peace’ — but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
In early 1776, the British government hired 12,000 German mercenaries (known as “Hessians”) to go to America and fight against American colonists. For many Americans, that was the last straw.
A one-month debate in the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, produced a unanimous vote on July 2 in favor of independence from Britain. The Declaration itself was approved by the Congress on July 4. Amid peeling bells, the firing of cannons and cheering mobs, it was read aloud to public gatherings from north to south. The ideas expressed in the document were revolutionary, and everyone knew that they were treasonous as well.
What ideas? Read the document again for yourself. Or, if you’re like most Americans these days, read it for the very first time. It’s all there. All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Premier among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government must be limited to protecting the peace and preserving our liberties, and doing so through the consent of the governed. It’s the right of a free people to rid themselves of a government that becomes destructive of those ends, as our Founders did in a supreme act of courage and defiance when they endorsed this magnificent statement to the world.
It would take seven long years of arduous conflict before the Treaty of Paris ended the war and Americans gained Britain’s recognition of their new nation. Following that were four more years of trouble and uncertainty under the Articles of Confederation.
Then came the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. No greater assembly of genius, wisdom, accomplishment, and experience, has ever been held for the purpose of creating a government and securing for its people the blessings of liberty.
The sagacity of George Washington, who presided over the Convention, was never more apparent than when he said, “If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we later defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”
God was very much on the minds of those assembled in Philadelphia. They knew they couldn’t accomplish their mission without Him, and they appealed to Him at the opening, at the closing, and innumerable times in between. The aging Ben Franklin said, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, how is it possible for a great nation to arise without His aid?”
And the hand of God was very much apparent in the end result. Here, in a nutshell, is what they did — and they did it not just for themselves and their generation, but for each and every one of you in this room tonight, and all the generations of Americans in between, as well as generations yet to be born:
- They created a republic, not a majoritarian democracy. They understood that there are many things that simply should not be subject to popular vote, like basic human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
- They fashioned a government of limited functions and powers. Their intent was to bind it down with the chains of a Constitution. They inserted more than 40 “thou shall nots” as I call them, all aimed squarely at government — "Congress shall make no law,” . . . etc.
- They crafted an ingenious “separation of powers” that takes two major forms:
- A system of federalism in which many powers are dispersed to the states;
- Three distinct branches of a new federal government, each with its own prescribed powers and limitations (executive, legislative, judicial)
All in all, the Constitution surely must rank as the greatest gift for governance ever bestowed by one generation upon the next and future generations. With liberty as their watchword, these brave and wise men, who had been through the crucible of war and who had put their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the line, had produced a document unlike any other ever crafted before or since. But the words of Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving the Convention should remind us that it isn’t enough to sustain liberty to simply declare it in writing. A woman supposedly asked, “Mr. Franklin, what form of government have you given us.” His reply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Can we keep it? True, it’s lasted more than two centuries already, but not without injury and frequent assault. Whether it survives and is strengthened for two more centuries, or becomes weakened, neglected, and overruled, all depends, as Franklin implied, upon us. Liberty is never guaranteed or automatic. It won’t be there for the next generation just because it was there for the last. It will be there if — and only if — the people themselves live it, breathe it, teach it, and defend it at all costs.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education and president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational insitute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.