The American Constitution
The American nation is founded on a unique notion that there is a certain class of human rights that exists in nature and that we create governments to protect these rights. The American Constitution creates a government powerful enough to protect these rights, but not so big as to become destructive of them.
The arrangement the Founders devised depends on dividing the powers of government in a manner that assures the ambitions of one group constantly check and contain the ambitions of another. But this can only work so long as the powers are evenly divided; this, in turn can only work as long as those to whom we loan these powers are obedient to that Constitution; and this, in turn can only work as long as “We, the People,” insist on it. And the moment we cease to insist on it, we will forfeit that Constitution and the liberty it protects.
I believe that the disintegration of the fundamental architecture of the Constitution presents a potentially mortal peril to our Republic, and that the restoration of the separation of powers is vital to our freedom, prosperity and happiness.
The Great Question
Young Americans Foundation – Santa Barbara, California – November 13, 2010
Ronald Reagan often said that the past four centuries proved that Providence plainly had a purpose in placing this continent between two vast oceans, preparing it to receive what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of mankind,” the American Republic.
After the victory at Yorktown, the American Founders began to realize that they had a fleeting opportunity to put all of the tyranny, injustice, corruption and misery of Europe behind them and as Thomas Paine put it, “to make the world over again.”
And so this remarkable group of men, aided by the great thinkers of the enlightenment, looked far back into history and deep into our own human nature and began to ask fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of government itself.
What is government? That’s an important question if you’re creating one. What is it?
An observation often attributed to Washington came closest to the mark when he observed, “Government is neither eloquence nor reason. Government is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.”
That’s a powerful metaphor for someone in the 18th Century. Fire was essential to heat your home and cook your food. But inherent in its very nature was the ability to destroy your home and ultimately your neighborhood and your city.
And if you think about it, government is exactly and precisely force. Every law that we pass, from the law that says you have to stop at a stop sign to the law that says you can’t punch somebody in the nose ultimately ends up being enforced at the point of a gun. There are no exceptions – government is force. Plain and simple.
If force is the nature of government, then what is its purpose? The Founders had answered that question at the outset of their struggle. It is a uniquely American answer. You’ll find it in those familiar words of the American Declaration of Independence – words that we often recite but rarely swell upon.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” – and then the answer to that question: what is the purpose of government – “that to secure THESE rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that when ANY form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
There are many democracies around the world today and many republics – but only one, to my knowledge, is founded upon this unique American doctrine: that there are a certain class of rights that we are born with – they are simply deduced from the natural order of things – from the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” as the Founders put it.
How do you deduce these rights? They are the rights you would have if you were alone in the world. They make no demands on anyone else. The Founders gave some examples, “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.” Essentially, the right to be left alone as long as you’re not injuring any other person’s natural rights.
You have the right to the fruit of your own labor; the right to raise your children according to your own values; the right to enter into voluntary associations with others for your mutual betterment; the right to your opinions and to express those opinions freely; the right to your religious beliefs and to worship freely; in short, the right to live your own life according to your own best judgment.
The source of these rights is the foundation of American freedom, and the Founders were explicit on this point: We are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. That’s a critically important concept. Rights that are given to us by God cannot be legitimately taken away from us by any earthly power. They cannot be alienated. If God has given you those rights, no person can take those rights away.
In the American view, the only legitimate use of force by one person over another or by a government over its people is in the defense of these natural rights.
Part of the great question being decided today is whether this foundation of American liberty is to endure. There is a concerted effort by the American Left to remove references to God from our public buildings, from our public ceremonies, from our currency, and there is a reason for this that has nothing to do with aethiesm – it has everything to do with authoritarianism. If the source of these rights is not God, then the source of these rights is human – or more to the point, a government of humans. And if those rights come from government, then they can also be withdrawn by government.
In the American view, you can repeal the Bill of Rights, but that doesn’t change the fact that those rights still exist. In the authoritarian view, those rights only exist at the sufferance of your government – or more precisely, the official within your government.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French philosopher, came to America in 1836, ostensibly to study prisons but he had a much more important question on his mind. If you were a Frenchman in 1836, you would know exactly what that question was.
The American and French revolutions were fought within 13 years of each other; in fact, the French were inspired by the Americans. The French revolution was fought on the same principles, against the same kind of monarchy, with the same avowed goals.
One had blossomed as this magnificent success: the American Republic. The other had culminated in one of the most ghastly failures in the history of the world: The Reign of Terror.
Tocqueville wanted to know what the Americans did so right and the French did so wrong. He travelled to America and wrote one of the most perceptive observations about our country ever written, “Democracy in America.”
In it, one of the prevailing themes was this critical difference. The Americans believe their rights come from God. The French believed their rights came from government, or more precisely, from the “Committee on the Rights of Man.”
The French found that if their rights were given by man they could be taken by man. “Do the Americans believe in God,” Tocqueville asked. He said, I don’t know. Who can look into the heart of a man? But I do know this: the Americans believe this concept is absolutely essential to the preservation of their liberty.
Having answered these fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of government, the Founders then went to work to fashion a government that would be strong enough to protect these God-given rights, but not so strong as to threaten these rights.
And that’s not an easy question. In Federalist 51, James Madison put the problem quite clearly:
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
How do you do that? Let’s be honest; we’re hierarchical creatures. As the great philosopher Jack Handy of Saturday Night Live fame once put it, “In a previous life I must have been a great king, because I really like it when people do what I tell them.”
The Founders knew that human nature holds an inherent conflict. We’re all Jack Handy – we all like it when people do what we tell them to. But we’re always happier and more prosperous when we’re left alone to do as we please. We are all authoritarians. We are all libertarians.
The Founders sought to employ our own nature against itself to contain the natural authoritarian tendency of government and to preserve our liberty. They did that through the Constitution, by employing what is often called “Mother’s Rule.”
“Mother’s Rule” is very simple. Suppose you have two hungry brothers and one slice of pie. How do you divide that pie so that both brothers go away satisfied. And before you say, “right down the middle,” what are you going to do with the cherry, with the part that has too much crust, or the jagged edge where somebody cut a corner on one side?
You can write pages and pages of regulations on this subject and still one brother will still claim he got the smaller piece.
Mother has a different approach. One brother slices. The other chooses.
The ambitions of one check and contain the ambitions of the other. Both go away satisfied every time.
But how would it work if the same brother who sliced, also got to choose the piece he had just sliced?
That is why the American Founders drafted the Constitution the way it is. The checks and balances within our system are simply “Mother’s Rule” writ large.
The powers of government are divided horizontally among three branches – each fulfilling a different function and containing the ambitions of the other two. And the powers of government are divided horizontally between the states and the national government, apportioning to the national government certain enumerated powers to protect and preserve the Union, and leaving all other matters to the individual states.
Ronald Reagan summed it up best when he said, “The Constitution is not the government’s document telling the people what they can and cannot do. The Constitution is the people’s document telling the government those things that we will allow it to do.”
And this brings us to the fine point of the matter and to the great question before us.
This uniquely American notion of individual rights and constitutionally limited government is utterly despised by those with authoritarian designs, because it makes it impossible for them to subordinate those rights to their designs.
This concept is antithetical to American liberty. It is the notion that the purpose of government is not to protect our natural God-given rights, but rather to improve society in whatever manner those in power believe it should be improved. Individual rights are granted by the government and subordinate to the needs of society.
Lincoln put it this way in his last debate with Stephen Douglas in October of 1858. He said,
“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles – right and wrong – throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
Reagan echoed these remarks when he spoke to Eureka College in 1957. He said:
“This is a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe. This irreconcilable conflict is between those who believe in the sanctity of individual freedom and those who believe in the supremacy of the state.”
This is the age old struggle. And we are watching it come to a head in our own time, in our own country.
What Lincoln called the common right of humanity and what Reagan called the sanctity of individual Freedom is now pitted in a life or death struggle with what Lincoln called the Divine Right of Kings and what Reagan called “the Supremacy of the State.”
I believe this is an age-old struggle that exists as long as humanity exists – because there are elements of both within our own human nature. But they are polar opposites in the realm of governance. They are incompatible concepts.
This is what Lincoln meant in the Summer of 1858, when he reminded us that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
“It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Then, the issue was between Freedom and Slavery. Today the issue is Freedom and Socialism. But it is exactly the same issue in whatever shape it develops itself.
That is the issue that is now being decided by the American people – not in the halls of government. The Debates in Capitols and City Halls are merely a reflection of a much larger debate going on among the American people. It is going on right now over backyard fences and family dinner tables and coffee at Starbucks.
And Lincoln was right, this debate will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed.
Upon the outcome of this debate rests nothing less than the question shall the United States of America simply fade away into history as another failed socialist state – or will this generation of Americans rediscover, revive and restore those uniquely American principles of individual freedom and constitutionally limited government that once produced the most prosperous and successful republic in the history of human civilization.
No one has a greater stake in this than your generation – because as a practical matter, you all are going to be around a lot longer than those now in the halls of government to deal with the result.
In May of 1780, John Adams poured his heart out to his wife, Abigail, in a letter in which he wrote,
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
That wheel has come full circle. The issues decided by the founding generation and reaffirmed by the Civil War generation are once again up for grabs.
The good news is that we have seen before what Americans do when they sense the approach of a common danger and they rise to the occasion. They set aside their personal lives and begin devoting enormous amounts of their time and energy to understanding the issues, exercising good judgment and setting things right.
It is something that the Obama Left does not understand and cannot possibly comprehend: it is called the Spirit of America – and we are seeing it summoned once again in our own time.
Each of you is here today because you are a part of that – a leading part of that. Learn these principles; learn them well; and take them to your generation. And remember, the American Founders didn’t call them “self-evident” truths for nothing. It helps to explain it to people, but when you do, they get it.
Late in life, a protégé of Frederick Douglass, the great abolition leader, came to him to ask, “What do we do now?”
He answered with three words: “Agitate, agitate and agitate.” We are in a great battle of ideas. Ours can be summed up in a single word: Freedom.
Take that message to every forum that you can find: write letters to the editor; call in to talk shows, twitter and blog. If you see an article that you think is important, email it to your friends, leave a comment, discuss it on facebook and Myspace and every other forum you can find.
That’s where the fight is right now.
And don’t get discouraged. The Left will excoriate and insult you and try to marginalize you. That’s their expertise – leave it to them – they’re not our teachers.
And some people never will get it. Adams remarked that throughout the American revolution, fully a third of our countrymen were Tories. In occupied France during World War II, about a third of the population was Vichy. These are the folks that Samuel Adams addressed when he said, “If you love wealth more than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chain be set lightly upon you and may posterity forget ye were our countrymen.”
But if you speak your truth clearly in every forum that you can find, you will discover that the other two thirds of your countrymen crave freedom, and will fight for freedom in every forum that they can find. Educate them and animate them.
We’re watching that happen with the Tea Party. Despite the left’s attempts to belittle them and marginalize them, they are having a huge impact on American politics. In every poll, a larger portion of the American people now side with them than side with the current administration. Only about 60 percent of them are Republicans. Another 20 percent are independents and another 20 percent are Democrats. Long before the Tea Party, we had another name for this phenomenon: we called it the “Reagan Coaltion,” and today it is alive in a new generation.
In the winter of 1861, a train stopped in the town of Indianapolis to re-provision before the next leg of its journey. It had originated in Springfield Illinois, bound for Washington D.C.
A small crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of one of its passengers. To their surprise, Abraham Lincoln emerged and visited with them for a few minutes. A stenographer took down these words as he spoke to them.
He said, “Of the American people, it may be said, when they rise up united in defense of their Union and its liberties, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.’ I appeal to you, my fellow citizens, constantly to bear in mind that NOT with the President, NOT with the office-holders, but with YOU is the question, shall the liberties of our nation be preserved to the latest generation?”
Placer County Tea Party – Rocklin, California – April 16, 2014
You’ve asked me to expand on remarks that I made on the House floor a few months ago, outlining what I believe is the overarching question of our generation. It is a question that I believe transcends everything else we are dealing with in our country today and is integrally related to them. That question is, “Will the American Constitution stand?”
When Lincoln made his way to Washington, the second night he stopped at Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he laid out his entire political philosophy with these words. He said,
“…all the political sentiments I entertain have been drawn, so far as I have been able to draw them, from the sentiments which originated in and were given to the world from this hall. I have never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
That’s what made the American Revolution revolutionary. It was the novel principle that there is a certain class of rights that exist in the natural order of things. These are rights you would have if you were alone in the world. They make no demands on others, and are self-evident. You have the right to enjoy the fruit of your own labor. You have the right to defend yourself from predators. You have the right to your own opinion and to express that opinion freely. You have the right to raise your children according to your own values. You have the right to be secure in your own home. Life. Liberty. The Pursuit of Happiness.
Because these rights predate government and exist apart from government, they therefore cannot come from government. Rather, we create governments to protect these rights.
It was this uniquely American view of the nature of human rights that created a voluntary society. Jefferson summed it up best in his first inaugural address. After cataloging the bountiful blessings the nation enjoyed, he asked, “With all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens—a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”
This was a fundamental departure from the compulsory societies of Europe.
In these compulsory societies, the sovereign sets the direction of society, allocates the resources, assigns the rights and makes the decisions of how society is to move to achieve them.
The voluntary society is one directed by the individual decisions of free citizens as they chart their own paths through life. The government guards the conditions necessary for them to do so: it restrains people from injuring one another; it provides the stable currency, it protects the sanctity of contracts and the security of property that makes human exchange possible; it shields the commons and provides for the common defense; and it superintends the basic infrastructure upon which human civilization depends.
Within this very simple, defined and limited framework, individuals make their own decisions over how to allocate their time and resources and how to live their lives. The sum total of their individual choices made dozens of times a day is what defines the path of that voluntary society, of which government is an obedient servant.
At a very practical level, this means we decide for ourselves where we wish to live, what we wish to eat, what light bulbs we prefer, how high we’ll set our thermostats, how we’ll get to work and how much water we’ll have in our toilet bowls. And we vote every day with every dollar we spend on what those priorities will be.
The compulsory society compels individuals to act in a manner that subordinates their individual hopes and aspirations to the collective designs of the state – all for the greater good, of course. And that requires great heaping gobs of government, because it’s not easy to force people to act against their own interests, their own moral principles and their own best judgment. That takes force – a lot of force – and a lot of bureaucrats to micromanage every facet of daily life.
We are told that such a compulsory society merely “reclaims” American values. Let there be no mistake, the advocates of the compulsory society are not reclaiming American values – they are fundamentally rejecting them and replacing them with values alien and antithetical to those which built our nation.
The American people have received a very clear sampling of what a compulsory society looks like during these past few years – and particularly in the past few months.
Last May, the President addressed students at Ohio State University. He extolled the benign virtues of an all-powerful government and told the students to ignore those who warn of its dangers.
Just a week later, Americans awoke to learn that for the last several years, their government has employed one of its most powerful and feared agencies to harass ordinary Americans because of their political beliefs, with the clear intention of intimidating them into withdrawing from exercising their right to participate in the public policy debate.
Nearly 500 conservative groups involving tens of thousands of individual Americans were subjected to invasive review and intimidation when they attempted to file for 501(c) status – the same status routinely granted for such advocacy groups as “Move-on-dot-org,” the ACLU, and the League of Conservation Voters.
The IRS demanded the names of every participant at every meeting these groups held over a period of years, transcripts of every speech given at those meetings, what positions they had taken on issues, the names of their volunteers and donors – and in some cases their families and associates – and copies of privileged communications they had with elected officials. In some cases, the person filing the request was then subjected to a personal income tax audit.
After nearly a year of congressional inquiries, the IRS, far from backing off from this behavior, is now seeking to institutionalize it through formal regulations that prevent individuals from pooling their resources to express their common views.
A week after the IRS scandal broke, Americans awakened to news that the Justice Department had surreptitiously seized the telephone records of some 20 reporters covering Washington for the Associated Press in an obvious attempt to discourage whistleblowers from talking to reporters.
Then Fox News Reporter James Rosen and his family were stalked by authorities as he tried to get to the bottom of the Benghazi scandal. Indeed, during this period, the government was far more interested in the comings and goings of Rosen’s elderly mother than it was in the activities of the Tsarniev brothers, dispite urgent and explicit warnings from the Russian government.
In order to search and wiretap the homes of Rosen and his family, the Attorney General of the United States had filed a spurious claim with a federal court that Rosen was conspiring to violate the Espionage Act – the same act under which the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1953.
The message to reporters asking inconvenient questions of the administration could not possibly have been more powerful or terrifying.
A few weeks later, Americans awoke to news that the federal government had swept up the phone and internet records of hundreds of millions of Americans in the name of state security.
These are precisely the kind of indiscriminate searches conducted by British authorities that John Adams said gave birth to the fight for American Independence.
The Founders specifically wrote the Fourth Amendment to assure that this NEVER happened in America. In America, in order for the government to invade your privacy or to go through your personal records or property, it must first present some evidence that justifies its suspicion against you and then specify what records or things it is looking for.
These are all fundamental violations of the natural rights of Americans that the bill of rights pledges the government to protect.
Gradually at first, routinely now, the executive branch has repeatedly asserted the legal authority to nullify any law or any portions of a law that he deems objectionable or inconvenient.
We began to see this with directives to agencies not to enforce immigration laws, and has now become epidemic as Obamacare has rolled out.
Now, the executive branch is asserting the authority to impose new laws through the regulatory bureaucracies that the elected Congress has specifically refused to enact. This includes the so-called Dreamers Act and the minimum wage.
All told, 3,200 final regulations were enacted by the executive branch last year – compared to only 300 laws passed by Congress, which has the sole constitutional authority to legislate.
In Libya and more recently in Syria, the President has asserted the authority to bypass Congress on the ultimate question of declaring war – the single most significant act a government can take and one clearly and unambiguously reserved to Congress and Congress alone.
Indeed, James Madison, the father of the American Constitution, said that its single most important feature was the provision that gave Congress and not the president, the authority to go to war.
This is the next step in the blurring of civil and military jurisdictions; a blurring of the concepts of war and peace that is producing a frightening breakdown in the constitutional safeguards of our liberty.
Just this morning it was revealed that the U.S. Navy NCIS is now keeping a centralized data base of the records of every civilian arrest, citation and even police field notes from interviews – more than 500 million records in total. This week, we learned that the NSA has been recording every phone conversation in at least one foreign country and has the same capability here at home. And the week before, we learned that the CIA has monitored the investigations of the Congress itself.
In response to the NSA and IRS scandals earlier this year, the President’s spokesman said, that quote — “the law is irrelevant.” He called these matters “a distraction.” What does that say about a society that once prided itself on being a nation of laws and not of men?
The first article of the Constitution establishes Congress. It is almost half of the entire document. The second article establishes the President and gives him the principle duty to (quote) “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
The faithful execution of law passed by Congress is what we call the Rule of Law – the American notion that the law is established by the elected representatives of the people and even-handedly administered by the executive.
That means the president may not pick and choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore, or who must obey the laws and who need not.
Article Three establishes a judiciary and accords every American the right of due process – and all the protections of English common law.
Yet last week, Congress received testimony from a constitutional scholar who warned that Americans are now ten times more likely to be tried in a regulatory tribunal than by a federal court.
These executive agencies now write the law, enforce the law and then adjudicate that law. The three powers of government that the Founders so meticulously divided are now united again in one all-powerful organ.
Look at the laws that are passed under the Constitution. They have an elaborate, well-armed enforcement mechanism. Break one of these laws, and ultimately a police officer will appear at your doorstep with a gun.
Yet the Constitution itself has no such mechanism.
Why is that? It is because the Constitution was designed to be self-enforcing. Mother’s rule doesn’t need enforcement – it enforces itself through similar checks and balances as those contained in the Constitution.
But in order for those checks and balances to work, the powers of government must be evenly balanced, those who exercise those powers must be devoted to the Constitution and to the institutions they serve, and – most importantly – the people must INSIST on it.
Congress has two checks on the executive. One is impeachment – but our Constitution reserves that for high crimes and misdemeanors. It has been raised three times in our history and never once sustained. And it is a power not to be taken lightly – for one branch to remove the head of another can only be taken for egregious acts so offensive that a national consensus has formed for its use. Experience tells us this is a very rare event that is not within practical reach.
The other is obvious: the power of the purse. The origination clause gives to the House of Representatives the sole power to propose taxes, and implicit in this is the sole power to propose appropriations. The Senate’s role is to approve the appropriation or to propose amendments back to the House.
And yet, this power, too, has broken down. Last fall, as the fiscal year approached, the House originated not one – not two – but three appropriations bills to fund the government – but exercising the power of the purse, it declined to fund the roll-out of Obamacare.
The Senate not only did not approve the appropriations, it refused to propose amendments back to the House or even to enter into negotiations to resolve the differences between the House and the Senate.
This is a fundamental breakdown within the legislative branch. The two Houses were specifically designed to have different perspectives and therefore to disagree. That is why, once the House has exercised its best judgment on given issue and the Senate has exercised its best judgment, a conference process then resolves their differences. But this can be thwarted if those responsible for those institutions refuse to act.
The government shut down. The House was blamed, and that second check on the executive – the power of the purse – is no longer available as a practical matter.
Ironically, the President is now doing unconstitutionally what the House had attempted to do constitutionally last year.
The only remaining check rests with the judiciary, but that third branch rarely enters into disputes between the first and second branches.
So what to do?
The oath sworn of every official and every member of our armed forces, is NOT to “preserve, protect and defend the United States of America.” It is not to preserve, protect and defend the United States Government.
It is to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The American Founders understood something that this generation is forgetting: that if we ever lose the Constitution, we have already lost the country.
It should be obvious that much of the structure of the American Constitution that has preserved our liberty for 225 years, that has contained the unwarranted expansion of governmental power and that has preserved the natural and individual rights of every citizen, has been allowed to decay.
The form is still there – the institutions continue to function – but they no longer serve their principle role to protect the rule of law and the liberty of the people.
In the U.S. Capitol, we are surrounded by the symbols of the Roman Republic. They should be a warning to us. The Roman Senate continued to exist 400 years after the fall of the Republic – but its nature and purpose had been emptied.
Surveying the wreckage of the Roman Republic, the great historian Edward Gibbon wrote, “the principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost, when the legislative power is dominated by the executive.”
That is precisely what is happening.
The institutions of our American Republic continue to operate, but the structures within them are rapidly degrading. In this condition, our Constitution is becoming like a rotting porch: we can still discern its form and purpose, but the structure that gave it strength and support is hollowing out through years of abuse and neglect until one day it will simply collapse.
How ironic it would be if the liberties of this nation, heroically defended by sacrifices of nine generations of Americans on far off battlefields, might someday be carelessly thrown away here at home.
What is to be done when the Constitution ceases to be self-enforcing. That is the question our generation must resolve.
Ours wouldn’t be the first civilization to succumb to the siren song of a benevolent and all-powerful government. But without a single exception every civilization that has fallen for that lie has awakened one morning to realize that the benevolence is gone and the all-powerful government is still there.
Ever since we lost Ronald Reagan we have been slowly and inexorably losing the debate over the size and role of government – whether we would remain a voluntary society or become a compulsory one.
That may now be changing as Americans begin to consider the implications of these developments.
Indeed, in January, the Gallup Poll reported that a record 66 percent of the American people – two out of every three Americans – now believes the federal government is – quote – “too big and too powerful.”
That is what it comes down to. The American people. After all, the only document in the national archives that is not the government’s document is the Constitution itself. Its ownership is made crystal clear in the first three words and the biggest three words on that parchment.
Ronald Reagan put it this way: “The Constitution is not the government’s document telling the people what we can and cannot do – it is the people’s document telling our government those things that WE will allow it to do.”
Ultimately, the only way to restore and enforce the Constitution is through the votes we cast in every election. It is our responsibility as citizens to hold accountable every elected official for their fidelity to the Constitution. And if we are unwilling or unable to do so, we will have lost it for all time.
This is not the first time our nation has drifted from its Constitutional principles. But the farther we drift from them, the stronger they begin to pull us back. I believe that is now happening, and every one of us has a duty as citizens to see that happens.
One thing has never failed us is times such as these. It is the American people, awakening from their slumber, rising up and demanding through the votes they cast that their elected officials either honor and obey the Constitution or get the hell out of our government.
It is what we do when we vote. It is that single act upon which the survival of our Constitution and our Republic ultimately depends.
And that vote comes about after a great national debate. I don’t mean the debate in Congress. That’s just a reflection of a much larger debate going on among the American people. That’s the debate that goes on every day across family dinner tables, over back yard fences, and over coffee at Starbucks. It is upon the outcome of that debate that the future of our nation will be decided.
So I urge you to immerse yourself in that debate in every forum you can find.
In January of 1838, a 29-year old state legislator named Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield. In it, he posed this question:
“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
A generation later, as the inaugural train made its first stop in Indianapolis on its way to Washington, he spoke these words to the crowd that gathered:
“Of the American people it may be said, when they rise united in defense of their union and its liberties, the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. I appeal to you to constantly bear in mind that not with the President, not with the office-seekers, but with you is the question: ‘Shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations.”
The American founders often referred to a “Liberty Tree.” Our generation didn’t plant that tree – we didn’t grow that tree – we were simply handed it by the generations of Americans who came before us. We accepted it and all its blessings – with the solemn obligation to care for it, to protect it, to nurture it – so that it can continue to bear the fruits of liberty for the generations who follow ours.
As we leave here today, let us highly resolve not to rest until we have delivered to our sons and daughters a Liberty Tree that is just as healthy, a Constitution that is just as strong; and a nation that is just as free as those that our fathers and mothers gave to us.
As Daniel Webster said so long ago: “Hold fast, my friends, to the Constitution and to the Republic for which it stands — for miracles do not cluster, and what has happened once in 6,000 years may not happen again. Hold fast to the Constitution, for if the American Republic should ever fail, there will be chaos throughout the world.”