Sunday, Sept. 17, was arguably America's most forgotten designated day. The mainstream media scarcely mentioned it. No parades or city council proclamations took place. Little or nothing was said of it last week in the classroom. There was no three-day weekend, beer busts, or barbeques in its favor. It is as though it never happened. Probably not one in 10 can say what happened on this day in 1787 because the special day has been ignored for so long.
But this day positively affected everyone in the United States and is probably the most crucial day in our history, the day that we institutionalized liberty in America. It was the day the Constitutional Convention ended, and the U.S. Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. Sunday was Constitution Day!
For nearly 6,000 years of recorded history, governments best described as regimental have dominated mankind. Only for a few fleeting moments in the past have individuals had anything to say concerning the restrictions and controls laid upon them. Under an occasional benevolent monarchy or an unconcerned king, people have, in rare instances, been left to themselves and were consequently somewhat free. Even rarer were the instances when, as in Athens, Rome, or at Runnymede, the people sometimes instituted changes allowing individual freedom to flourish briefly through persuasion and often by force. Our experiment with liberty was one of those.
Still, until 1787, man did not know how to harness government. Liberty is, in fact, freedom from excessive government, and the biggest enemy to individual liberty is and always has been big government. But the Constitutional Convention, ending on Sept. 17, did just that. It limited government!
We abolished kings forever in favor of presidents selected by the state legislatures (before the 17th Amendment) for a short but defined period of time. We took away the president's power to make decrees (laws or rules) over us, allowing him, in a state-of-the-union address, to merely suggest changes and otherwise only to sign or veto laws passed by the legislative branch.
The legislative branch, consisting of representatives of the states in the U.S. Senate, to protect states' rights from federal intrusion, and the people's representatives in the House of Representatives, to protect the people from federal intrusion, were to make all laws. Both legislative branches, from different perspectives, had to approve every law imposed upon the people, and all law had to adhere to the constitutional list (Article I, Sec. 8, Cla. 1-18).
Historically, the two areas most sensitive to the people were excessive taxation because all monies expended were extracted from the people, and unpopular wars because all injuries, deaths and hardships were suffered by the people.
Under the Constitution, there can never be an unpopular war because the people's representatives in the House of Representatives have total power over raising and funding the army. They must consent to the war by declaration because the people provide the blood and brawn for it and the House alone authorizes the treasure for it (Art. 1, Sec. 8, Cla. 11). "All bills for raising revenue shall originate" with them (Art. 1, Sec. 7, Cla. 1). The Constitution -- if adhered to as originally written -- ended for all time both unpopular taxes and war. We became the first nation in history to place the people in charge of both. Moreover, funding for war could not be extended for more than a two-year time period, thus requiring that any war remain the will of the people (Art. I, Sec. 8, Cla. 12).
The Constitution is marked by four divisions of power, the first and most important being a division of power between the states and the federal government due to fear of domination by a national government. Our Founders, under the new concept of federalism, allowed two governments to co-exist, neither to be over or under the other, with national and international issues governed by a federal government and local and intrastate issues governed by the states. The federal government and state governments were equal partners with different spheres of rule and authority -- like in a marriage.
All powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution remained with the states or the people. The federal government's powers were limited to the powers listed in Article I, Section 8, Clauses 1-18, and to powers assigned to the federal government by the states by an amendment requiring three-quarters of the states to approve (Article V). Ours was, decidedly, a limited government from the outset with few federal laws placing restrictions upon the individual.
The other three divisions spelled out in the Constitution divided power at the federal level. Powers were separated with one body, the legislative branch, making federal law; another, the executive branch, enforcing it; and a third, the judicial branch, adjudicating it. But none of these branches were to legislate, execute, or adjudicate in a manner to erase or undermine the first division of power between the states and the federal government. No Founding Father supported such a usurpation of federal power.
The Bill of Rights, demanded by the states as a condition of their ratification of the Constitution, further restricted the federal government in many areas. Amendments thereafter, numbered 11-24, approved by 3/4 of the states, altered some parts of the Constitution. Still, the federal government remained limited and on notice to remain subservient to the people.
The Constitution remains an enemy of big government, which is largely supported by both political parties and by liberals and conservatives alike. Why? Because big government is an enemy of individual liberties protected by the Constitution. Perhaps this is why so few wish to honor the Constitution or bring attention to it on Constitution Day. If they did, Americans might read the document and be awakened to their extensive loss of liberty.
Harold W. Pease, Ph.D., is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for more than 30 years. To read more of his weekly articles, visit www. LibertyUnderFire.org. Opinions expressed are those of the author.