Topping the list of reforms in the Tea Party’s Contract From America is “Protect the Constitution.” Additionally, as part of their pledge to America, House Republicans will require all bills to cite specific constitutional authority. While some criticize such emphasis on the founding document, branding it “constitution-worship,” the fervor is not without substance. Because both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence contain core principles that are the foundation of America’s success, understanding the meaning of these documents and principles they contain is absolutely imperative.
A Citizen’s Introduction to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and author of We Still Hold These Truths argues that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution work in tandem. Abraham Lincoln once described the relationship by referencing a verse in Proverbs: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” The Declaration is the golden apple; the frame is the Constitution. “The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture,” Lincoln concluded.
Americans, too, must conclude with Lincoln that the Constitution was designed to uphold the principles of the Declaration. Securing the rights affirmed in the Declaration—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—requires limited self-government. An unrestricted government—such Britain’s harsh rule over the American colonies—endangers rights. Hence, the first Americans designed the Constitution to restrict the powers of the government and reserve all unspecified powers to the states and the people. Only when the government’s role is limited and prevented from exercising total control can self-government flourish. Government ought to act vigorously, but only within a set scope. The beautiful golden apple can only be supported by the silver frame.
Progressives, however, want to dismantle that frame. They reject Lincoln’s understanding and want to unshackle the Constitution from the dead ideas of the American Revolution, releasing it to grow and evolve with changing times.
Unlike the American founders, Progressives believe that rights come by active government decree. For them, the Constitution—which limits government—is a hindrance to creating rights (and entitlements) as they see fit. Thus they also misunderstand the Declaration. The founders made clear that rights proceed from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” For Progressives, however, rights flow from the government. This idea stifles liberty and is antithetical to self-government.
This insidious thinking must not go unchecked. By reinvigorating a proper understanding of the founding documents through resources like Spalding’s monograph, “protecting the Constitution” can become less a political slogan and more a policy agenda. Then Americans can thwart the progressive agenda and prove yet again—even as they did two hundred years ago—that self-government is achievable.
Matthew Kuchem is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm