We take so much for granted – 231 years after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The many and ever-present constitutional safeguards of liberty we each enjoy. The security of knowing the rule of law is in place, even in turbulent and troubling times. The sheer brilliance of our governmental institutions, enduring for more than two centuries. We often lose sight of the fact that our Constitution – announced to the world on September 17, 1787, after months of deliberation and intense debate – was nothing short of miraculous.
Never before in human history had a group of people come together to bring into existence – not by force or by accident, but through reasoned debate – a government dedicated to the preservation of human liberty and the rule of law. Our enduring Constitutional republic makes clear that human beings indeed are capable of “establishing good government from reflection and choice,” as Hamilton hoped in Federalist 1. And We, the People, carry the responsibility to maintain for future generations what reason produced. We proved that human beings were not “forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident or force,” again the words of Hamilton. We deliberated. We debated intensely. We broke the mold.
Never before in human history had there been such a remarkable convergence of brilliant, passionate revolutionaries – James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, John Witherspoon (to name only a few of the luminaries of the Founding generation) – all born to the same generation, living in the same geographical location, animated by the same impulse for freedom. They were committed to creating, as John Adams insisted, “a government of laws, and not of men.” 1 Some may describe it as a happy coincidence, a lucky twist of fate, or a coincidence of astronomical proportions. Those who lived it understood it to be the workings of Divine Providence, confident that God had orchestrated that remarkable moment in human history.
Never before in human history had a biblical understanding of human nature so profoundly influenced actions in the political realm. The U.S. Constitution recognizes the fallen nature of human beings and the tremendous temptation to power if unchecked. In short, our Constitution reflects the biblical worldview. James Madison couldn’t have made this any clearer than when he asked in Federalist 51: “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The drafters of the Constitution were significantly influenced by a deep understanding of the Christian faith and the Bible. In fact, scholarship shows that the primary source of political influence during the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras was the Bible, specifically the Old Testament. As scholar Donald S. Lutz noted: “If we ask what book was most frequently cited by Americans during the founding era, the answer somewhat surprisingly is: the Book of Deuteronomy. … [T]he biblical tradition is most prominent among the citations.” 2
We know that the Revolutionary generation was greatly influenced by ideas of John Locke. We know from Locke’s writings that we have natural rights to life, liberty and, in Jefferson’s vernacular, the pursuit of happiness. But why is this so? Like our founders, Locke embraced a biblical worldview understanding of human nature. We see it throughout his writings, but nowhere more clearly than in his Second Treatise of Government (1690), a political work that significantly influenced the founding generation. Locke wrote that human beings are “all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, . . . his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.” 3 We are rights-bearing, self-governing individuals because God created each of us – as His workmanship for His purposes.
Never before in history was a framework for liberty so clearly established. The guiding objective of the Constitution was to preserve – and extend—human liberty. But at its drafting, the Constitution was not perfect. It failed to resolve the most contentious issue of the day: slavery. Many attending the Constitutional Convention argued – rightly – that slavery could not be reconciled with the nation’s animating ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or with the human dignity required by God and inherent in their biblical worldview. Part of the Constitution’s genius was that it contained within its structure the mechanism to correct that flaw; and eventually the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments extended the constitutional guarantees of liberty to those denied it because of slavery. We, the People, always have the guarantee that the Constitution can be changed through the amendment process to fulfill the promise of liberty.
And never before in human history had religious liberty been so prioritized and so jealously guarded by the protection of law. The U.S. Constitution is an especially poignant document for Christians and for the American church. Never before in human history did the law so specifically protect individual “right to conscience” in matters of faith. Never before in human history was government specifically prohibited from establishing a preferred “official church.” Never before were people of faith guaranteed the free exercise of their faith – not just in houses of worship, but fully protected in the public square. Never before in human history was religious liberty elevated to the position of a nation’s first freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is the first freedom of the First Amendment.
As we celebrate Constitution Day, remember that the real beauty, the miracle of our nation’s government is its constitutional structure – designed with human nature in mind. Never before in human history has a government established such a clear constitutional framework for human liberty – individual, political, economic, and religious. The guiding objective of the Constitution was to preserve – and extend—human liberty. Not by mere words, but with carefully designed and enduring governmental structures – checks and balances, clear separations of power, enumerated powers, diffusion of political power as broadly as possible, a process for amendment. These were created in the Constitution to rein in the human propensity to abuse power, while safeguarding liberty and encouraging human flourishing. And for people of faith, it set in place the framework for religious liberty that we so greatly enjoy today. Never before in history …
Chair, Department of Government, History & Philosophy
1 John Adams, Novanglus, Thoughts on Government, Defence of the Constitution (1851), in The Works of John Adams, vol. 4. Available at Online Library of Liberty: http://oll.libertyfund.org/
2 Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 189-197.
3 John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690), Ch. 2, Section 6. Available at The Gutenberg Project: https://www.gutenberg.org/