The Founders’ Key

Posted: Sep 29, 2014 12:01 AM

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It" (Thomas Nelson, 2012).

What is the place of a constitution? A constitution is something different from the Declaration of Independence, so grand in its phrases, providing a purpose and a guide for the operation of a government, but not arranging the processes by which it operates. It is something different from the regular ordinances of governments local and national, different also from the rulings of a court or the actions of an executive, different from the elections and appointments that put officers in place. A constitution differs from other human laws in its generality and supremacy. It differs from those ultimate laws named in the Declaration, those “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” in its particular and binding application on a people that has adopted it. It is somewhere between these things. It forms a bridge between them.

A constitution is not only described in the Declaration of Independence; it is necessary to it. The Declaration claims that the people may not be governed except when they have given their consent. They must agree that some particular offices must be occupied by some particular people who may do some particular things. The Declaration describes what kinds those offices ought to be and how they should be related to one another, but it does not provide the offices themselves or any way for their occupants to be selected. A constitution like the one we have is then a necessary element of the American government.

Think of the Founding of America as a work of art, in fact as a statue, something sculpted and made by the art and hands of a man. A constitution is the highest kind of statute, which means “law.” It is no coincidence that the word constitution, the word statute, and the word statue are connected from ancient sources through the idea of setting a thing firmly in place or setting an imposing thing in place upon a firm basis.

The Founding of the United States is, more than any other parallel event in history, a work of art. Of course there were chance events of huge significance. Of course there were doubts and disagreements, misinformation and ignorance plaguing all the key actors in the drama. Still the key events of the Founding were deliberately chosen through a process of debate, conducted by officers who had been selected by the people to do what they did. In this debate reasons were given pro and con, then decisions reached and reasons given for the decisions. We have therefore the speeches and the deeds in close association, and these are speeches and deeds in the making of a nation. There had never been anything like it, and it is hard to see how it can ever recur. Even when the speeches are in error, even when they are deceitful, we have the precious opportunity to compare them with one another and with the deeds to which they give rise or from which they proceed.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the prime examples of this pattern, and as the prime examples occurring amidst these unique events of the American Revolution, there is nothing quite like them in the history of the world. They are the products of careful crafting, and they state specific reasons for the decisions they represent. The fact that these decisions have proved to be monumental in scale and longevity makes it hardly credible that were chosen for reasons that can be traced, and yet manifestly they were. The Declaration of Independence is little else than a list of the reasons why it came to be. The Constitution gave rise to a debate full of reasons pro and con, and several documents in that debate are among the most profound political statements in history. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both surrounded by debate and disagreement, and yet both were adopted, and both are still in force two centuries later and more. The debate reached a decision, and the decision still stands, even if the ground beneath it has sometimes shaken and even if it shakes now.