On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed the self-evident truths and principles that the Constitution was designed to protect. It saddens me to hear people say that the Constitution was written too long ago to be a worthy guide in a modern world so different from the world of 1776. Those who say as much often concede that the people who conceived and wrote the Constitution were among the most learned and enlightened of their age; however, detractors insist that said age has long passed, and lessons from such enlightened people have little relevance today. Let’s sort out whether these beliefs about the Constitution are valid.
There are, of course, huge differences between today and 1776 (or 1789 when the Constitution was adopted) with respect to what people do, what people know, what people believe, and what technologies people use. On the other hand, there are essentially no differences in human nature since 1776. It just as wrong to kill, steal, rape, and rob today as it was then. The human penchant to desire more than what they have is unchanged. Human propensities of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth (written down as “deadly sins” in about 400 A.D.) are just as present today as they were when those “sins” were first identified, and the vast majority of people still believe them all to be bad. The same is true of the seven virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility (the naming of which is about as old as the named sins). Anarchy, the absence of government, would result in as much ruination then as it would today.
The “government” (established by the Articles of Confederation) in place at the time of the adoption of the Constitution was not serving its purposes. A new government based on the spirit of 1776 needed to be formed. The participants at the Constitution Convention in 1787 included many who were extremely learned in the history of governments and politics, philosophy and human nature. They had analyzed the recorded history of ancient Greece, Rome, and many other civilizations, each of which had tried different forms of government (with variations in the forms over time). They teased from the data the forms of government (that is to say, the formal relationships between the people and the governors) that worked best. They had multiple millennia of examples from which to identify the best such relationships. After much discussion and collaboration, the convention produced the Constitution that, over time, produced the most free and prosperous nation in the history of the world.
America certainly has many faults and has committed many errors. It has never and will never (because perfection is unachievable by humans) realized its values to the fullest. Compared to perfection, America is mean and hideous. (There are many things about America today I would change if I could.) Compared, however, to all the other attempts humans have made to strike the right balance between the citizens and the government so as to maximize human flourishing, America remains head and shoulders above every other nation conceived and constituted. The fact that the founders were not perfect is lamentable, but it does not negate the marvel they accomplished.
Every modicum of power ceded to a governor reduces the freedom and power of the people. Without governors having some power (“rope” with which to yoke the people), there is anarchy—a state in which freedom is not worth much, and people’s power is ineffective. What the founders accomplished was a Constitution that struck the best (so far) balance of power between the flawed and fallible citizens and their flawed and fallible governors. Relying on the wisdom of those intelligent students of thousands of years of human history (America’s mere 240 years of existence pales in comparison), the Constitution was designed to give the governors enough rope to govern but not so much rope that they could become the tyrants, an amount of power that essentially all unrestrained governors desire to obtain (and given enough time always do)[i]. Save the unlikely event someone will come up with a better balance of power, that balance will still be the best balance a thousand years from now.
The idea that the correct balance of power between the governors and the governed has substantially changed since 1776 reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of the Constitution and definitely eschews the spirit of 1776.
[i] “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”