National Center for Constitutional Studies
|"A primary object.should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing.than.communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?"
Justice Story's words pay tribute to the United States Constitution and its Framers. Shortly before the 100th year of the Constitution, in his History of the United States of America, written in 1886 historian George Bancroft said:
He went on to say:
And two hundred years after the adoption of this singularly-important document, praised by justice Story in one century and Historian Bancroft in the next and said by Sir William Gladstone to be "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given moment by the brain and purpose of man," the Constitution of 1787 - with its Bill of Rights - remains, yet another century later, a bulwark for liberty, an ageless formula for the government of a free people.
In what sense can any document prepared by human hands be said to be ageless? What are the qualities or attributes which give it permanence?
The Qualities of Agelessness
America's Constitution had its roots in the nature, experience, and habits of humankind, in the experience of the American people themselves - their beliefs, customs, and traditions, and in the practical aspects of politics and government. It was based on the experience of the ages. Its provisions were designed in recognition of principles which do not change with time and circumstance, because they are inherent in human nature.
"The foundation of every government," said John Adams, "is some principle or passion in the minds of the people." The founding generation, aware of its unique place in the ongoing human struggle for liberty, were willing to risk everything for its attainment. Roger Sherman stated that as government is "instituted for those who live under it ... it ought, therefore, to be so constituted as not to be dangerous to liberty." And the American government was structured with that primary purpose in mind - the protection of the peoples liberty.
Of their historic role, in framing a government to secure liberty, the Framers believed that the degree of wisdom and foresight brought to the task at hand might well determine whether future generations would live in liberty or tyranny. As President Washington so aptly put it, "the sacred fire of liberty" might depend "on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people" That experiment, they hoped, would serve as a beacon of liberty throughout the world.
The Framers of America's Constitution were guided by the wisdom of previous generations and the lessons of history for guidance in structuring a government to secure for untold millions in the future the unalienable rights of individuals. As Jefferson wisely observed:
The Constitution, it has been said, was "not formed upon abstraction," but upon practicality. Its philosophy and principles, among others, incorporated these practical aspects:
The Constitution of the United States of America structured a government for what the Founders called a "virtuous people - that is, a people who would be able, as Burke put it, to "put chains on their own appetites" and, without the coercive hand of government, to live peaceably without violating the rights of others. Such a society would need no standing armies to insure internal order, for the moral beliefs, customs, and love for liberty motivating the actions of the people and their representatives in government - the "unwritten" constitution - would be in keeping with their written constitution.
George Washington, in a speech to the State Governors, shared his own sense of the deep roots and foundations of the new nation:
And Abraham Lincoln, in the mid-1800's, in celebrating the blessings of liberty, challenged Americans to transmit the "political edifice of liberty and equal rights" of their constitutional government to future generations:
Because it rests on sound philosophical foundations and is rooted in enduring principles, the United States Constitution can, indeed, properly be described as "ageless," for it provides the formula for securing the blessings of liberty, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquillity, promoting the general welfare, and providing for the common defense of a free people who understand its philosophy and principles and who will, with dedication, see that its integrity and vigor are preserved.
Justice Joseph Story was quoted in the caption of this essay as attesting to the skill and fidelity of the architects of the Constitution, its solid foundations, the practical aspects of its features, and its wisdom and order. The closing words of his statement, however, were reserved for use here; for in his 1789 remarks, he recognized the "ageless" quality of the magnificent document, and at the same time, issued a grave warning for Americans of all centuries. He concluded his statement with these words:
Our ageless constitution can be shared with the world and passed on to generations far distant if its formula is not altered in violation of principle through the neglect of its keepers - WE, THE PEOPLE.
Our Ageless Constitution, W. David Stedman & La Vaughn G. Lewis, Editors (Asheboro, NC, W. David Stedman Associates, 1987) Part VII: ISBN 0-937047-01-5