Declaring your independence is risky, but it's relatively simple. Figuring out how to function as an actual nation is more complex. That's why some of the brightest American minds came to Philadelphia in 1787 to write the Constitution of the United States. Thomas Jefferson called their meeting "an assembly of demigods," and who can disagree? The ensuing debate produced the remarkable document that still guides our nation 224 years later.
It was signed on Sept. 17, now celebrated as Constitution Day. Imitated in numerous countries around the globe ever since, this unique charter established a republic seen as the very model of how "a more perfect Union" can preserve freedom from generation to generation - and yet remain strong.
It's something every American should read. Yet few of us do. Why? It isn't long or complicated. The original document (not counting the Bill of Rights, which came later) is only about 4,500 words. The text is straightforward and readable - no Cliffs Notes are needed to decipher it. Considering its importance, why would anyone approach a voting booth without having it read it at least once, if not multiple times?
Perhaps it's because we tend to forget how lucky we are. Yes, even amid the many problems that surround us, we forget that many people have it worse, and sometimes far worse. Even now, long after the end of the Cold War, there are countries where people are thrown in jail, starved and beaten for speaking their minds - where the idea of electing a president, or getting a fair trial or having almost any rights at all, is a pipe dream.
"Liberty's too precious a thing to be buried in books," Jimmy Stewart says in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." "Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: 'I'm free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can, and my children will.' " That's the case for reading the Constitution - and re-reading it - in a nutshell.
We all know what happens to an uncultivated garden. Weeds grow, flowers die and disorder takes root. It's the same with freedom. We can't guard against government's tendency to encroach on our liberties unless we know the limits of what government can do. In fact, we start to forget that government even has limits, and some big ones at that. That fact alone makes the United States stand out among other nations. As President Reagan once noted:
"Why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional? Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it's so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: 'We the people.' In those other constitutions, the government tells the people of those countries what they're allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others."
Reminding our elected leaders of those limits is the perpetual obligation of every American. Consider what former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said when asked whether a mandate requiring the purchase of health care was constitutional: "Are you serious?" Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, was also asked about Obamacare and whether there were any limits on Congress. His reply: "The federal government, yes, can do most anything in this country."
No, it can't. Not even close. What the federal government can and can't do is found in the Constitution. And the 10th Amendment adds: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." But only someone who's read the Constitution would be aware of that.
"The Constitution is the guide which I never will abandon," George Washington said. Let's hope all Americans wholeheartedly make the same commitment.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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