As we write, the two-hundred-and-thirtieth anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States just passed. The holiday, celebrated on or about September 17 (depending on whether that date falls on a weekend), was known as “Citizenship Day” until 2004, when Congress officially renamed the commemoration “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” The new law stipulated that all federally funded educational institutions, and indeed all federal agencies, provide additional programming on the history and substance of the Constitution.
In that spirit (although The New Criterion receives no federal funding), we wanted to offer a few brief observations about that remarkable document and its contemporary significance.
The U.S. Constitution is, by a considerable measure, the oldest written constitution in the world. (Only half of the world’s constitutions make it to their nineteenth birthday.) It may also be the shortest. The main body of the text, including the signatures, is but 4,500 words. With all twenty-seven Amendments, it is barely 7,500 words. The Constitution of the European Union, by contrast, waddles to the scale at 70,000 words—an adipose document the girth of a longish book.
The U.S. Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world. It may also be the shortest.
What really distinguishes the U.S. Constitution, however, is its purpose. The Framers— James Madison first of all, but also John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others—were well acquainted with the effects of arbitrary and unaccountable state power courtesy of the depredations of George III. Accordingly, they understood the Constitution prophylactically, as a protection of individual liberty against the coercive power of the state. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” as Madison noted in Federalist 51, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed”—that is hard enough. But then “in the next place [you must] oblige it to control itself.”
As many observers have noted—though perhaps not so many among the governing class—the U.S. government has, in recent decades, done a better job at the former than at the latter.
Read the rest at The New Criterion.