Last year, for one day only, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania put the oldest known copy of the Constitution on display to, fittingly, mark Constitution Day. It’s safely back under lock and key now, and future sightings of that particular copy are likely to be rare.
Yet the complete document is as visible as ever, and as central to our lives. It’s just that we don’t always consider the many ways we rely on the Constitution. For example:
1)The Constitution protects religious liberty.
This may seem too obvious to note. But it’s crucial. The United States set out to protect everyone’s religious rights and allow them to worship as they pleased, as George Washington explains in his famous letter to a Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island.
“All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” Washington wrote. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
This resulted in thriving religious communities. “Almost 90 percent of Americans say that religion is at least ‘somewhat important’ in their lives,” writes Jennifer Marshall of The Heritage Foundation. “About 60 percent are members of a local religious congregation. Faith-based organizations are extremely active in providing for social needs at home and in sending aid abroad.”
2)The Constitution protects diversity.
The Framers envisioned a large nation. In an extensive republic, James Madison noted, the large number of people, with a great diversity of interests and views, would help prevent any faction from becoming supreme.
Because of competitive federalism, people in San Francisco can elect leaders with far different political views than people in San Antonio opt for. And the rest of the country can compare and contrast the results. Each state is free to develop tax, spending and regulatory policies it believes to be in the interest of its people.
Of course, sometimes that doesn’t work out well. California is going broke while Texas is booming. But that’s the point. Every state has the ability to adopt Texas’ successful policies, or California’s failing ones. As Michael Greve wrote recently, “Overtax or over-regulate your citizens or firms, and they move to a more hospitable state.”
3)The Constitution creates a national free-trade zone.
Again, this may seem too obvious to note. You don’t have to stop when driving across a state border and declare what’s in your trunk. And companies are free to set up in one state yet sell goods in others. But it was the Constitution that made the U.S. the first continental free-trade zone.
4)Our Constitution protects civil society.
By limiting the power of government and establishing the rule of law, the Constitution creates a framework for a vibrant civil society.
Across the country, civil institutions such as churches and charities exist to allow Americans to help each other. Americans lead the world in volunteerism and charitable giving, in part because of our religious freedom, and in part because we recognize that individuals generally do a better job of helping others than governments do. Because the Constitution limits government power, people step up to fill gaps and provide for needs.
The Constitution is the key to our nation’s future. It remains rare – as the document in Philadelphia is, and ubiquitous. Both revered and misunderstood. May it endure for another quarter century. At least.