“We the People.” We’ve heard that phrase so often it’s easy to overlook its significance. But as we mark our nation’s birthday, we should take a moment to ask ourselves: What is the role of the people?
Our nation is unique because of its universal founding principles. At the heart of these principles is the belief that people are free by nature and possess inherent rights. The use each one of us makes of these rights will naturally be different, and the outcomes of those choices will naturally differ, too. But the choice remains ours.
Freedom is thus inextricably bound up with living our lives as we see fit. This is self-government in the truest sense of the term. We the people need not slavishly defer to experts. We can be trusted to govern ourselves.
That is why government must remain limited: The people have given it only limited powers, as described in the Constitution. When we allow government to take more than we have given it, our choices become meaningless. At worst, unlimited government is tyrannical; at best, it imposes a dull uniformity that crushes true diversity and saps the independent spirit of the people.
The Founders strove to create a government that couldn’t be dominated by a single faction. That faction might be a minority or a majority. But no matter its size, it would inevitably seek to promote its own narrow interests at the expense of the liberties of the people.
One purpose of the Constitution’s checks and balances — one reason it divides and limits power — is to restrain the ambition of the powerful and promote “the general welfare.”
Yet as the federal government has grown over the past century, its business has increasingly become taking from Paul to benefit Peter, then borrowing from Peter to pay off Paul. What supporters of big government call the general welfare is merely the artful distribution of favors to particular factions.
The federal government is not supposed to be the most important institution in America. In securing the general welfare, it’s supposed to do only those things that are provided for in the Constitution.
It must, for example, provide for the common defense and regulate our relations with foreign nations. It must respect our right to enjoy the fruits of our labor by taxing lightly, and defend the freedom of the marketplace by ensuring the rule of law. And it must remember that the family and religion are where we learn virtue, and that without virtue, government cannot be both limited and free.
As John Adams stated: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the United States, government requires not merely the consent of the governed. It rests ultimately on the ability of the people to govern themselves. Thus, the first role — the first duty — of the people is to ensure that they remain virtuous and free.
That is why the American system is based on the rights of the individual, but not on individualism. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that “it is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor,” he captured a vital truth of American freedom. The Founders placed great hopes in the Constitution, but they knew that no paper constraints could preserve liberty. That duty rested ultimately with the American people.
The role of the Constitution was to restrain and to check, and — as Washington wrote — to “raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” The words of the Declaration, the lives of the Founders, and the design of the Constitution can inspire, but on their own they cannot preserve the American republic.
Only the American people, steeped in the principles that inspired the Founders and animated the Declaration, can do that. Almost 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, it’s worth asking: Are we up to the task?
• Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).