John Adams got everything right except the date. “The Second Day of July 1776,” he wrote to his wife, “ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with [Shows], Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
Americans commemorate the Declaration of Independence on July 4. But there’s certainly room on the calendar for another celebration, even if a somewhat subdued one.
Monday, Sept. 17, marks the 225th anniversary of the signing of the nation’s second great founding document, the Constitution that provides Americans with limited government. Constitution Day never became a day off from work, and it’s hardly marked with pomp and circumstance.
That’s fitting, though. Unlike the Declaration, the Constitution never aimed to stir hearts or encourage uprising — quite the opposite.
The Constitution was drafted more than 11 years after the Declaration. The United States had won independence but was struggling under the weak Articles of Confederation.
The Founding Fathers wanted to draft a document that would provide an effective but carefully limited federal government. Through a series of compromises, they did just that.
They designed three branches of government — legislative, executive and judicial — that would check each other. If one tried to usurp too much power, the others would have an interest in bringing it back into line. Just as competition brings down prices in economics, competition would tend to keep any particular branch of government from acquiring too much power.
Appropriately, the most powerful branch would be the legislative. That’s where all laws would be written and where all spending bills would originate. So the Constitution further divides Congress into two branches. In the House of Representatives, every member would stand for re-election every two years. In the Senate, six-year terms would promote more deliberation. These two forks of the same branch would provide further checks, preventing the rash use of Congress’ great power.
The Constitution has held up well for more than two centuries, with only occasional modifications (the 27 amendments) through the years. Of course, people used to be a bit more serious about the idea that the Constitution said what it meant and meant what it said. Any 21st-century celebration of the Constitution should take note that the country is no longer keeping faith with its constitutional principles.
Today, most “laws” actually are rules and regulations enacted by bureaucrats in government agencies, not statutes passed by elected lawmakers. Even when Congress does pass legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank financial reform law or Obamacare, lawmakers leave many blanks and expect rule-makers to fill them in.
That means the bureaucracy, peopled with federal “experts,” essentially exists as an unelected fourth branch of government. It has limited accountability to the actual elected branches — and no accountability to voters. That’s not right. Lawmakers need to reclaim their constitutional role.
So should judges. The founders wrote that the judiciary would be the “least dangerous branch,” in part because judges wouldn’t have the ability to enforce their rulings without support from the other two branches. But today’s liberal judges often enact laws rather than interpret them. Fealty to the Constitution would require judges to return to their traditional role and stop legislating from the bench.
Finally, there’s the presidency. As chief executive, a president has crucial responsibilities. But presidents lack the power to enact laws or to determine that some laws won’t be enforced. Our constitutional framework of limited government requires a president who will actively use his granted powers but also recognize the strict limits on those powers.
After the Constitution was complete, Benjamin Franklin noted that it made the country “a republic, if you can keep it.” This Constitution Day, let’s honor the framers and respect their work by changing America’s course — and returning to our constitutional roots.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).