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On Sept. 17, 1787, as members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the founding document of the United States of America, Dr. Benjamin Franklin turned to a few of his fellow members. Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising sun from a setting one, he noted. “I have often and often in the course of Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [image of a sun] behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
The sun did rise upon America, and it continues to rise. The “miracle” of unanimity in Philadelphia has borne awe-inspiring fruit. Balances struck at the time for the sake of political convenience established a system of working checks and balances. A national government of enumerated powers, a national government respecting the authority of local government, a national government strong enough to protect the people but bound to respect the law – that is the product of all the negotiation and infighting in Philadelphia during 1787.
The Constitution is, quite simply, the finest document ever devised by man. It is brilliant in its structure: the House of Representatives, elected directly by the people, its allocation of representatives based on population; the Senate, elected by state legislatures, with equal representation for each state; both houses of Congress circumscribed in their ability to infringe upon the freedoms of the states and the people. The presidency is a masterwork of compromise – a powerful executive maintaining defense, with the partial ability to check the legislature, yet subject to re-election every four years by the people through the mechanism of the Electoral College. The judiciary, largely restricted to deciding outcomes based upon the Constitution and the laws to be passed, has not the ability to check the other two branches – if it did, the subtle balance between popular sovereignty and a structure of checks would be entirely subordinated to the will of the judiciary.
The Constitution is as clear a document as any yet written. Yes, it contains lofty language – promoting “the general Welfare,” for example – but it is largely a document of specifics. The Constitution is not poetry, open to all forms of interpretation; it is not a literary piece designed to reflect individual whims. The Constitution is, first and foremost, a governmental document, as legal and understandable as the Judiciary Act of 1789. It does not mutate over time; it does not reflect what we wish it to be. It is what it is. It requires no embellishment.
In its operation, the Constitution has allowed Americans the freedom to maximize human happiness. Instead of the constant strife associated with competing states under the Articles of Confederation, a national government was empowered to create a true Union. Still, the states and localities remained the locus of governmental power. While creating an experimental republic the size of which the world had never seen, the founders recognized that most issues deserve to be solved at the local level. The Constitution demonstrates respect for the people on three levels: as members of a nation, as members of a community and as individuals. The beauty of the Constitution remains its steadfast dedication to empowering the people, through their duly elected and deliberative representatives, to do their will.
No, the Constitution is not a perfect document. Amendments to the Constitution have been necessary and have done great good for the document itself. But again, the founders realized that changes would be necessary for this great empire of liberty to adapt to changing times. Those changes would be embodied in the amendment process, a process that has abolished slavery, given women the right to vote, and protected freedom of speech, religion and the press, among other necessary and virtuous developments.
The American sun rises and sets with the Constitution. As Dr. Franklin also pointed out on Sept. 17, the Constitution itself is but a document – it relies on the people to give it truth and life. The Constitution, Franklin stated, “can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
As the checks and balances restricting federal usurpation fall away, as the American people become more and more dependent on a national government, will the promise of the rising sun sink into the sea of time? Only time will tell. Americans were given the greatest mechanism for the protection of freedom in human history on Sept. 17, 1787. The choice to maintain that mechanism remains – as it always has – in our hands.