On this date 233 years ago—September 17, 1787—the Constitution was signed by its authors, and began its challenging journey toward ratification. We are very fortunate that it succeeded on that journey. Our country has not only benefited from the wisdom underlying that document but has also been shaped by its forms and contours. We Americans identify ourselves with the structure of our government to a very unusual degree, and for that reason many of our most profound debates and disagreements take the form of constitutional arguments.
This year, in particular, we might want to cherish and appreciate the extraordinary stability that our constitution has made possible. Consider an example: The United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. opened in 1800 to house the same institution—the U.S. Congress—it still houses today. In the course of that same 220-year period, the arrangement of powers in even the exceptionally steady British regime has gone through dramatic transformations unlike anything we have witnessed here, and most other relatively stable societies (like the nations of Western Europe, China, Japan, and countless others) have gone through several fundamental changes of regime through conquest, revolution, or political upheaval. The French have lived under five republics and a handful of other forms of government in that time. We Americans sometimes still think of ourselves as a young nation, but our political institutions are among the most established in the world. We’ve been through a lot, and they have served us well through it all.
We are approaching an election that may pose another threat to that stability. It will take place in the middle of a pandemic, so that many more people than usual may have to vote by mail—which may slow the counting of votes in ways that raise public concerns. And it occurs also in the midst of a very unsettled period in our politics. The President of the United States has said the only way he could lose that election is if the other side cheats. Prominent elders of the Democratic Party have said their party should not concede the election under any circumstances. Each side is working to persuade itself that the other is contemplating a coup (and as you read those words, you’re probably thinking “yes, but only the other side actually is planning one,” whichever side that might be).
It’s a mess. But it’s not our first mess, and it should lead us to contemplate the extraordinary achievement that we are now charged with preserving and perpetuating. In Federalist 1, as he prepared his readers for the coming debate about ratification of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton offered this assessment of the stakes:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
That was not a one-time test. We face it still. But we do have some sources of strength that the Americans that Hamilton was addressing did not possess. We have the legacy they have bequeathed to us, and the common national experience that since that time has forged us into the society we are. That experience and that legacy are themselves part of our constitution as a society, and they compel us to consider our written Constitution as more than just a legal code, and more than just an arrangement of authorities.
On the NRO homepage today, I offer some thoughts about what that broader constitutionalism might involve—and what our constitution really is. This year, even more than usual, it’s imperative that we consider it in full, and think through our republican obligations so that we might come to deserve the unearned grace that is ours by virtue of the glorious fact that we all get to be Americans together.
Happy Constitution Day.