For over a hundred years, Progressives have been trying to persuade Americans that times have changed, and therefore our founding documents (especially the Declaration of Independence and Constitution) must evolve to meet the needs of a developing society. This notion of a “living constitution” is certainly predominant in intellectual circles, but has also seeped into our everyday discussion and way of thinking about the Constitution.
If times have changed so much, then we must ask (especially on Constitution Day) why is the Constitution worth celebrating—or even preserving?
On one level, we celebrate and preserve the Constitution because it coherently organizes the structure of governmental affairs and “is the arrangement that formally constitutes the American people,” as Matthew Spalding writes in We Still Hold These Truths. But the Constitution is not praiseworthy simply because it enumerates particular institutions (like the executive, or the judiciary, or the states).
To understand the importance of the Constitution and its worthiness, we can turn to its great defender and preserver, Abraham Lincoln. For Lincoln, the Constitution was not meant to be celebrated for itself. Reflecting on the teaching in Proverbs 25:11 that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” Lincoln describes America’s principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence as the apple of gold, while the “Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” Although the picture of silver is indeed beautiful and good, “the picture was made for the apple-not the apple for the picture.” Thus, what makes the Constitution worthy of preservation are the eternal principles of the Declaration of Independence secured thereby.
Assuredly, the daily habits of American life have changed since 1787. But a global economy, technological advances, and women in the workforce do not make the Declaration of Independence moot or necessitate a new Constitution. Ever during the current assault on the Constitution, Americans nevertheless turn to this revered document for guidance. After all, in the words of Calvin Coolidge, there is a finality to America’s principles: “If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.” This Constitution Day, let’s remember and celebrate the principles that have made our Constitution the most successful written constitution in history.
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