- Constitution Day - September 17 - came and passed without
fanfare. That is the day that commemorates the signing of one of the two
most important documents in our nation's history. (The other one, of course,
is the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate on the Fourth of
July.) Even and especially in the midst of tragedy and crisis, it is critically
important that we remind ourselves of the meaning and purposes of our Constitution.
- When our American ancestors consented to calling into
existence the federal government in 1787, the means by which they did so
was the document known as the Constitution. Contrary to popular opinion,
the Constitution was not -- and is not -- a grant of rights to the citizenry.
Instead, the Constitution is a "barbed-wire entanglement" designed
to interfere with, restrict, and impede government officials in the exercise
of political power.
- For example, the Constitution does not grant anyone freedom
of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, or the right to
bear arms. In fact, one searches in vain for any language in our Constitution
that grants any rights to the people whatsoever. (The Constitution can
be found in any World Alamanac and can be accessed on the Internet at the
website of the National Archives and Records Administration, where the
original Constitution and Declaration of Independence are housed: www.nara.gov.)
- Instead, recognizing the truth expressed in 1776 in the
Declaration of Independence that people's rights preexist government, the
Constitution is actually a limited grant of enumerated powers to government
officials and a series of restrictions that prohibit government officials
from interfering with the exercise of rights that preexist government.
- To put this more clearly, read the First Amendment carefully.
You will notice that it does not give people the right to express their
views. It instead prohibits (the democratically elected) Congress from
enacting any law that interferes with a person's (preexisting) right to
express his views.
- That distinction was -- and is -- critical, and it was
well understood by our Founders and our ancestors. They recognized that
our rights don't come from the Constitution; instead the Constitution prohibits
government officials from interfering with fundamental rights that preexist
- The institution of a government whose powers were few
and limited was the most radical political experiment in history. In fact,
that was one of the things about the United States that amazed people all
over the world: the thought that government officials should not have the
general, unlimited power to do whatever they thought best for the country
was a shocking one to the rest of the world.
- Why didn't our ancestors institute a government with
general, unlimited powers to "do the right thing," especially
in the midst of a crisis? Because they knew that governments throughout
history had used unlimited political power to trample and even destroy
the rights of the citizenry, especially during crises and usually with
the best of intentions.
- Consider the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in Ex Parte
Milligan (1866), a case that arose during our nation's Civil War: "Those
great and good men foresaw that troublous times would arise, when rulers
and people would become restive under restraint, and seek by sharp and
decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper; and that the
principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril, unless established
by irrepealable law. The history of the world had taught them that what
was done in the past might be attempted in the future. The Constitution
of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and
in peace, and covers with the shield of its protection all classes of men,
at all times, and under all circumstances. No doctrine, involving more
pernicious consequences, was ever invented by the wit of man than that
any of its provisions can be suspended during any of the great exigencies
of government. Such a doctrine leads directly to anarchy or despotism...."
- It is perhaps understandable that Americans would forget
to celebrate Constitution Day given the recent tragedy and the current
national crisis. But if we forget our Constitution -- its meaning and its
purposes -- we do so at our peril.
- Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future
of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va.