Editor’s note: This is one in a series examining the Constitution and Federalist Papers in today’s America.
Humans assembled to make laws for thousands of years before the American Constitution was created in 1787, yet its revolutionary and transcendent influence on human history is difficult to comprehend this side of its formation.
In a convergence of political theory and patriot passions, a form of government unknown before was created. It is difficult now to imagine governance before it or life without it.
For most of the human experience, aggressive assertion of authority over others determined who governed. Might had its right. Countless stronger and more aggressive leaders advanced their will over others.
However, occasionally there were moments that foreshadowed the idea of inherent rights of people and natural and proper limits on government. The Athenian assembly, the Roman Senate, the Magna Carta, the Plymouth Compact, and, finally, the Constitution were all structured around the rights of citizens and proscribing the authority of the collective.
Nevertheless, the preservation of individual liberties, the autonomy of the person and responsibilities of the rulers to the ruled were not routinely preached or believed outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Across generations, the seemingly innate, ignoble yearning of rulers and kings to exercise their hand over others persevered, and they continually crushed efforts to enshrine these liberties in a durable framework.
What was this grain of liberty that was codified in the Constitution, and where did it arise? What readied the authors’ inkwells?
Ancient scripture provided the founders with inspiration into the necessary and proper discernment of judges, failings of mortal man, and the glory and rarity of selflessness.
Mostly out of self-preservation, King John signed the Magna Carta, which encoded individual property and legal rights (at least for the nobles) in 1215. In the 1600s, Thomas Hobbes argued for economic liberalism, noting that in the interest of fair trade, individuals would enter into contracts that willingly surrendered elements of their natural rights in the interest of common commerce.
Montesquieu, observing the excesses of the French nobility, concluded that the best government was divided government. John Locke advanced the idea that government should be best formed by and with the consent of the governed.
Each of these voices was known and considered by the authors of the Constitution. Many of them sensed that they were in a providential moment, with a unique, clean slate upon which to establish a city on a hill. Their first undertaking, the Articles of Confederation, leaned too much in the direction of empowering state governments to the detriment of the federal government and quickly proved unworkable.
Thus, the call for the constitutional convention. The spirited and private deliberation of 55 statesmen across one hot summer revolutionized governance. James Madison’s detailed notes on that conclave in Philadelphia provide our greatest insight into the effort; the Federalist Papers (mostly the work of Alexander Hamilton), the greatest hindsight into their intent.
It was a unique convergence of character, learning and compromise that yielded this historic compact. The oldest participant, Benjamin Franklin, when asked what had been produced, answered simply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
To keep it, we must understand the origins of it.
The Constitution was a product of learned men observing the failures of other experiments in governance. Out of their contemplations of generations of political philosophers, they disaggregated authority across, and among, states and the national government. They protected the minority from the risk of mob rule and laid the groundwork for the ultimate dissolution of the greatest blight on the continent, slavery.
If longevity is the measure of brilliance, then let the longest run as a democracy — 237 years so far — serve as a strong witness.
At some point in the future, humans may inhabit new worlds. If wise and learned leaders were tasked with how best to govern those worlds, a construct that honors individual rights and religious expression, aspires to equality for all, requires the consent of the governed, affirms individual industry with guarded property rights, and establishes unresolvable tensions where ambition checks ambition, just might be a compelling thought experiment.
Such a constitution would lean large on the grand document that governs “we, the people” today.
• Ronny Just is an executive with Georgia Power, one of the nation’s largest utilities. He has worked in public policy for 35 years.