Today is Constitution Day, which observes and celebrates September 17, 1787, the day the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the original document in Philadelphia. This is a lesser-known and celebrated holiday than July 4, which celebrates that date in 1776 when the thirteen American colonies unanimously declared independence as a new nation.
These two events are inextricably intertwined because without the July 4, 1776 event we could not have the September 17, 1787 Constitution. The Declaration of Independence provided the mandate for American government, which was and still is a novel concept among governments of nations—that we the people have rights that are pre-political, not provided by or established by our government, but rather that the government exists solely to preserve and protect those fundamental rights.
What we celebrate on both July 4 and September 17 is the unique beauty of the American experiment. For the first time in world history, our forefathers had the audacity and will to recognize the moral truth of human existence. That human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore endowed by our Creator with certain rights. Governments do not determine those rights or have the moral or legitimate authority to infringe on those rights at whim.
What we celebrate today (and we should celebrate every day) is the fact that human beings have a particular designation of being rights-holders and American government is required by our law and governance to recognize and protect those rights. But Americans have largely lost our understanding of what our Constitution actually is in full, and how it actually functions to preserve freedom. We’ve lost the meaningful definition of government, liberty, and rights.
Our Constitution is not an incredible document because it is perfect or because it gives us rights that amount to freedom. It’s an incredible document for precisely the opposite reasons. The Founders recognized that human beings, in addition to being created by God and endowed with certain fundamental rights, are also flawed and given to our fallen human nature. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison ponders that very point, and the nature of government as enforced through man’s propensity for wickedness.
Our Constitution enables genuine freedom for Americans because it does not provide our rights, but rather gives government specific, limited powers for the purpose of preserving and protecting our rights. Our chosen government is a constitutional republic rather than a democracy or a monarchy because our founders wisely recognized man’s propensity for corrupting power if the ability to rule was vested in one king and also collective society’s propensity for gullibility and mob rule if the ability for lawmaking was vested in sheer majority rule.
So with careful consideration and much debate, our Constitution was signed in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, and the specific powers were separated among the three branches of the federal government (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial) and among the three layers of federalism (Federal, State, and the People). The layers of federalism are the most often denied or forgotten in an increasingly overreaching federal government. Indeed, even if we recognize state powers, often government fails to recognize that our supreme law does vest some powers of decision-making and governance to the people—meaning that the federal and state lawmakers do not have all governing authority between them.
It’s an amazing system. Importantly, the powers given to government not only do not delegate rights to the people, but also do not delegate policy to the agents of government. The Constitution simply provides power to act. But it’s not a perfect, unalterable distribution of powers. The Founders recognized that this is an experiment. The truthful recognition of who we are as human beings and that our rights are pre-political is unchangeable. But the powers given to various branches and layers are alterable if one or more branch or layer becomes corrupt.
The Founders specifically included Article V among the powers of government at both the federal and the state level. Congress may propose amendments to the Constitution to redistribute or clarify or foreclose powers. The states may also propose amendments. For any amendments, there is a clear process for both Congress and the states, with the same ratification process.
In our Constitution’s history, we have amended it 27 times. The first ten amendments (collectively known as the Bill of Rights) reiterated to Congress what it was not empowered to do with its legislative authority. The Bill of Rights did not give Americans more rights than we would have without it—it simply further protected and clarified federal legislative authority for certain rights that governments tend to most often infringe (like freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, or due process concerns).
We have also amended the Constitution to ensure that all citizens can participate in the voting process, regardless of gender. As a woman, I’m particularly grateful for that amendment. Adding the Nineteenth Amendment via Congress and ratification by the states didn’t at all risk the entirety of the Constitution, but added further protection that every state abides by. The 25th Amendment added needed clarity for the presidential succession and what may happen upon disability. This didn’t change the president’s Article II powers whatsoever, just added powers for the offices in the line of succession.
Article V is a great legal tool for American government to have a viable mechanism to amend government’s powers without having to rewrite the Constitution or in any way change any other article or prior amendment.
Amazingly, many who say they love America and our Constitution embrace and defend every part of the Constitution except Article V—specifically, the states’ power to propose amendments. What is known as a “convention of the states” has become a hotly contested issue, primarily because opponents fail to understand it in context. The Founders wisely observed that if the federal layer of government had the sole, exclusive ability to propose amendments, then there would be no separation of powers according to federalism, and any amendments would be dominated by the federal government, whose actors would not propose ideas to foreclose their own powers if and when needed.
George Mason argued prior to September 17, 1787 at the Constitutional Convention that the ability for the states to convene and send delegates to represent them at a conference for the purpose of proposing amendments must be added to ensure that the federal government could not dominate the amendments powers. This power to the states was added to Article V. The Founders separated powers at all levels and layers of government to best protect and preserve the pre-political rights of all Americans.
This is an incredible system of government. I am proud to be an American and today celebrate a document that recognizes that I am a human being made in the image God and that my rights come from my Creator. Because of our system of government and the delegated powers to the people to also participate in government, we must not shirk our solemn duty and obligation as citizens. We have the power to vote. We must use it in November.
We also have the power to provide checks and balances for the government through our representatives in Congress and our state legislatures. One movement to utilize the states’ power in Article V would call for the state delegates to convene for the purpose of proposing amendments for term limits on congress, balancing the budget, and providing judicial reform. We should all be able to agree that in 2018, those items are necessary to consider, and Congress isn’t considering them on the federal level.
This Constitution Day, do more than celebrate America. Use your specific, delegated power within our government system to vote in the midterms and to support Article V’s Convention of States project. We the people are one layer of governance that must stand up and participate.