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The Constitution

John S. Palmore Jr., 32, K.C.C.H.
Frankfort, Kentucky

If there is one treasure prized as much by mankind as life itself, it is liberty. Throughout history men and women have died for it, and in so doing have left for us the legacy of freedom we enjoy today.

When the founders of our great country came together during the summer of 1787 and brought forth the noble document of state remembered as “the Miracle at Philadelphia,” the Constitution of the United States of America, many of those patriots, as in the instance of their unanimously chosen chairman, George Washington, had personally risked their lives and fortunes for the independence of their several colonies. Now it was their task to fashion a government under which they could live in harmony without losing the great treasure of freedom for which they had fought.

It should not be mistakenly assumed that the mission of this convention was to draw up a second edition of the Declaration of Independence. The principal charter of American liberty was to come later in the form of the Bill of Rights, the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution. First it was necessary in the Constitution itself to design a structure of government that would be able to function effectively without threatening the individual freedoms of its subjects.

The people had rebelled against England, their mother country. Now, after 11 years, they discovered that the governments of their own little independent states could be just as arbitrary and oppressive. Already there had been at least one revolutionary eruption, in Massachusetts, and there was considerable bad blood between individual states. As the people could not live comfortably under a foreign crown, neither could they abide the arrogant domination of their own elective legislatures. Congress at that time had no supervisory authority, and the official objective it had committed to the delegates was to propose an amended structure that would repair this imbalance between the national legislative body and the independent states.

As history tells us, they did that and more. They wove the principles of democratic independence into a federal system in which the authority of effective government is wisely divided between the several states and a national government, with the people themselves electing representatives to each. It was a work of inspiration and genius, indeed a first in the history of mankind.

The important aspect of this Constitution, of which we need to be constantly reminded, is that it complements statements of principle with a structure of state design that leaves great latitude to the people in choosing just how much freedom and what kinds of freedom they wish. It has, for example, the flexibility of permitting us to say that some of the limitations and beliefs that were considered in 1787 to be consistent with a “free country,” such as restricting the right to vote on the basis of race, sex or property ownership, really are not consistent with freedom today. Indeed, during the latter days of this century, our generation has not hesitated to alter key facets of the Constitution’s provisions. Yet the Constitution itself still stands as sound and strong as it ever was. That is the glory we recognized in 1987, its 200th birthday, and which we celebrate every year of our lives as free American citizens.

Time has proved that neither the national government nor any state government can impose upon the people more limitations than the people are willing to suffer. Under the Constitution, the people always have a peaceful remedy of one kind or another. Forcible rebellion is obsolete and unnecessary. If substantial numbers of the population want change badly enough, they will have it, and if somehow a change is made that does not retain general public support, it will not long survive.

There is only one mortal power that can threaten the principles of freedom and independence for which this country and its Constitution have stood for these past 200 years--that is the power of the majority. It was James Madison himself who warned that the “danger of oppression...lies in the majority of the community.” There have been dark chapters in our history in which the written word of the Constitution was not alone sufficient to prevail over the contrary will of that majority. A law is nothing if there is no one able and willing to enforce it.

In the end, freedom and self-restraint are inseparable. We can have that liberty our Constitution was intended to secure only if we are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to preserve it. We cannot suffer the eternal values that are embodied in our constitutional principles to be trimmed away for the sake of what may seem more expedient at the moment. We must not be too prone to accept as right that which our temporary lawmakers say is right--whether they be legislative, executive, or judicial. Our government and the fundamental principles on which it was founded were designed for a people and time more enduring than ours alone.

The men who sat together at Philadelphia did not grow up in a world in which success and happiness were assessed in terms of material comforts. They wrote a Constitution fit for a people strengthened by hardship. Whether it survives another 200 years depends upon whether the people are fit for it.