The Preamble and brown gavel laying across the blue stars on the American flag.
August 18, 2023

National Constitution Day emphasizes value of the document

National Constitution Day is celebrated annually on Sept. 17

The U.S. Constitution was signed by the members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. We now celebrate that banner day every year.

And well, we should. This year marked the 236th birthday of our national Constitution, and its legacy continues as the world's oldest written constitution. Yes, we have the immense good fortune of living in the oldest constitutional democracy existing anywhere. As a nation, we may feel justifiable pride in that accomplishment.

But why else is the U.S. Constitution so significant? First, the Constitution of 1787 was a written constitution. While this may seem obvious, its significance remains profound. For example, in 1787, Britain did not and still has no written Constitution. Indeed, no nation did prior to 1787. The Framers of the Constitution knew that a written constitution would produce the most precise specifications of powers the new government could exercise and what powers it could not. This level of specificity allows for the states to operate within their own spheres of local power and for citizens to enjoy substantial freedom from government interference to pursue their own social, economic, and political activities. In an early opinion interpreting the Constitution, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that a written constitution was "the greatest improvement on political institutions" because it defined the federal government's powers as limitations that, by being written, "may not be mistaken or forgotten." 

Second, our written Constitution sets forth and thus limits the specific powers of the three branches of the federal government: Congress, the President, and the Judiciary. These branches exercise the fundamental powers of any government. The Congress writes laws that govern our society, the President executes those laws, and the Judiciary evaluates their application to individuals and groups. 

Separating these powers has enormous practical significance. 

When a single individual or group has the authority to exercise all these powers, one entity can write the laws, determine to whom they shall apply, and then evaluate whether any individual or group is guilty of violating them. That is the definition of tyranny because no countervailing force can constrain the governing power from exercising coercive power against a disfavored person or group in society. History shows dictators and monarchs are rarely benevolent because, as Lord Acton wisely noted, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Framers ensured that "ambition would counteract ambition" and guard against authoritarian rule by dividing these key powers among three separate institutions in a system of checks and balances.

Third, the very longevity of the Constitution also has profound significance. Over time, written constitutions set expectations for government officials and citizens. We call these expectations "constitutional norms" or "constitutional conventions," which are as important as the document's written word. That's because written constitutions—for all their benefits—only amount to words on paper, which James Madison called "parchment barriers." Officials and citizens must respect and abide by those words; that is where norms work. Russia also has a written constitution, but that does not mean that the government consistently respects its specifications for individual freedoms. Even in the U.S., with its long history of constitutional democracy, we rely on our respect for the Constitution to enable it to endure.

We often need clarification of this fundamental document’s meaning, the separation of powers, and the individual rights and equality it protects. However, regardless of these disputes, the Constitution allows us to deliberate and even change our fundamental rules of governance according to the law without resorting to violence. Lately, a restlessness has emerged with demands to change specific provisions of the Constitution. Some suggest that the U.S. Constitution requires updating; others look for adjustments for better governance. How should we proceed to preserve the oldest Constitution in the world while making it possible for a new generation to assume custody of the country they inherit? Like all generations of Americans, we owe it to our descendants to engage the idea of change thoughtfully, collectively, and with an ever-watchful eye to preserving our remarkable constitutional foundations.

All of this leads to the critical point about the Constitution in the famous words of Ben Franklin. The written document establishes a republic, but only if we choose to keep it.

Written by Stefanie Lindquist