“The happy Union of these States is a wonder; their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of Liberty throughout the world.”James Madison
The fact that the U.S. Constitution’s power relies solely on the citizenry’s belief in its power is not something new to my blog. In fact, I’ve harped on this reality many times before. The Constitution is a piece of paper and the limitations that exist on that piece of paper only have power if we collectively know, respect and believe in those limitations. If we don’t know and respect those limitations, why should government know and respect them?
However, I don’t intend to explain these concept with my own words in this blog post but rather to let the words of the founders and others re-enforce for you what I’ve already established.
So, here, in their own words, the founders explain that the Constitution derives its power from the knowledge and respect of the people.
“The power of the Constitution will always be in the people. It is intrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and, whenever it is exercised contrary to their interest, or not agreeably to their wishes, their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled.”George Washington
Washington says it beautifully. The power of the Constitution truly is and only will be in the people. It is the standard by which to compare government behavior and if it “exercises itself contrary to the Constitution and thus the interest of the people” the people can and should recall those servants. Notice the language? Those in government are referred to as servants and it’s incumbent upon the people to know the Constitution and “fire” those in government should they violate it.
“Our peculiar security is in possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.”Thomas Jefferson
As I’ve said before, the Constitution is piece of paper, its power coming from the people itself. We should never allow it to become a blank piece of construction because of our apathy, lack of knowledge and respect for it.
“If it were to be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest source of our security in a Republic? the answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws–the first growing out of the last.”Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton lays it out plainly. Notice the point he makes that a respect for the laws only comes out of a respect for the Constitution. The Constitution is what empowers and limits the kinds of laws government can make… it legitimizes the laws. Otherwise, the laws would be arbitrary and abusive, coming from nowhere. But the power of government to make certain laws comes from the Constitution itself–thus limiting the types of laws that government can make. We need to respect the laws or else we’re doomed to anarchy, but we can only respect the laws if we-and government-first respect the Constitution.
“I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be not the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable, more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.”James Madison
Again, Madison asserts that the Constitution is legitimized initially because it was accepted and ratified by the nation–the people.
“BUT WHEN ONE EXAMINES THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES, THE BEST OF ALL KNOWN FEDERAL CONSTITUTIONS, IT IS FRIGHTENING TO SEE HOW MUCH DIVERSE KNOWLEDGE AND DISCERNMENT IT ASSUMES ON THE PART OF THE GOVERNED. THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNION RESTS ALMOST ENTIRELY ON LEGAL FICTIONS. THE UNION IS AN IDEAL NOTION WHICH EXISTS, SO TO SAY, ONLY IN MEN’S MINDS AND WHOSE EXTENT AND LIMITS CAN ONLY BE DISCERNED BY THE UNDERSTANDING.”Alexis de Tocqueville
This quote by de Tocqueville is beautiful and an incredibly poignant and chilling explanation of the significant position we the citizenry have in knowing and respecting the Constitution. It is indeed frightening to see just how much knowledge and discernment the Constitution assumes on the part of the citizenry. Truly, the Constitution exists only in our minds or it is fiction. It is an ideal and it only exists in our minds and the limitations it places on government only have power is we know and understand the limitations themself and can thus discern if government is violating those limitations.
The Liberty Belle