The “Myth” of the American Founding

Julia Shaw /

You should think twice the next time you invoke the Constitution or argue that the federal government is overreaching its power. According to The Economist, you may well have succumbed to “The Perils of Constitution Worship.”

Lexington, who writes about American politics for The Economist, attacks the Tea Partiers and our own First Principles Initiative, amongst others, for buying into what he calls the “myth” of the American Founding: “there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshipers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century.”

The Framers, Lexington explains, were but “creatures of their time” and their writings can therefore offer no guidance when it comes to tackling today’s problems. And, as he generously reminds us, that is for the best since the Constitution they gave us was resolutely at odds with conservative aims to restore limited government. The Constitution in fact sought to “bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic’s Articles of Confederation.” It turns out that we defenders of the Constitution don’t even understand the document that we purport to defend.

What Lexington gives us, in short, is the typical progressive narrative. His facile dismissal of the Founders as outdated aristocrats however prevents him from grasping the truly revolutionary nature of the teaching they put forward. The Declaration of Independence articulates a new grounding for government which, far from being the common practice for the times, marked a radical departure from all existing forms of government. All men are created equal and as such have natural inalienable rights that governments are instituted to protect. If a government fails to protect these rights, then the people may abolish and replace it.

These principles—equality, natural rights, consent—are the permanent principles and standards by which governments are instituted and judged. They apply today, just as well as they did in the 18th century and will continue to apply no matter what progress we achieve in the sciences.

As such, our attachment to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution stems from our dedication to these principles. We venerate the principles—not the documents. And we are dedicated to the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution not simply because they are old, or distinctly American, or because we have a particular affinity for Jefferson, Madison, or Washington. We uphold these principles—and honor the documents that embody them—because they are final, true, and, in the words of Calvin Coolidge, “no advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions.”

If that is correct—if we still hold these truths—then these principles do offer guidance for today. The Constitution may not proscribe policy or offer simple solutions to the problems of the day, but it does create the framework for our elected representatives to deliberate about and make policy that furthers the ends for which our government was instituted. Consider for example the GOP’s “Pledge to America” or The Heritage Foundation’s “Solutions for America,” two policy documents that are firmly anchored in our Founding Principles.

Lastly, while Lexington is correct that the Framers did indeed seek to create a stronger federal government than the one under the Articles of Confederation, theirs is still a far cry from administrative behemoth that the Progressives have given us. As Gary Lawson remarks, the Constitution never grants any authority to the federal government. Certain powers are vested in certain branches, in order to prevent one branch from usurping too much power, but never to the federal government as a whole. If the Framers intended to create an all-powerful centralized government, they would not have separated power into distinct branches. The Constitution, moreover, recognizes that states have a separate sphere of power. Article I vests in Congress a specific set of the legislative power over particularly national affairs (post roads, money, commerce among the states and with foreign nations); while the states retain the brunt of the legislative power—the police power—over the health, safety, and welfare of the people within their states.

And, as Matthew Spalding reminds us, the “purpose of the Constitution is to protect rights that stem not from the government but from the people themselves, and the powers of the national government are limited to those delegated to it by the people in the Constitution . . . While the Ninth Amendment notes that the listing of rights in the Constitution does not deny or disparage others retained by the people, the Tenth Amendment states explicitly that all government powers except for those specific powers that are granted by the Constitution to the federal government.”

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are the highest achievements of our political tradition, powerful beacons to all who strive for liberty. They are rightly esteemed, because they encapsulate the principles on which our nation was established. Anchored as they are in human nature, they will continue to offer guidance and help us frame issues as long as our republic endures.