Editor’s Note: Below is a transcript of Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech today at Hillsdale College in commemoration of Constitution Day.
Thanks very much for your kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure for me to speak to Hillsdale folks. Your mission here at the Kirby Center is a great example of what Hillsdale College is all about — that is, in the words of James Madison, “liberty and learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support.”
In addition to those of you who’ve joined us today, I’m told that these remarks are being webcast live for the benefit of Hillsdale students back in Michigan, where it is currently 8:30 a.m. — or, as most college students call it, the crack of dawn. Your scholarly passion for human freedom must be powerful indeed.
This Saturday, we celebrate the 224th birthday of the Constitution written by the Framers in Philadelphia. In paying tribute to this inspired document, I want to talk about how we should think about the Constitution, and why that matters.
Usually, our defense of the Constitution is presented as a defense of America’s founding principles and values, and rightfully so. But our constitutional system is not just a collection of principles; it embodies an approach to government with profound practical implications for both our freedom and our prosperity. When that system is threatened, both freedom and prosperity suffer.
Freedom is lost by degrees, and the deepest erosions usually take place during times of economic hardship, when those who favor expanding the sphere of government abuse a crisis to persuade free citizens that they should trade in a little of their liberty for empty promises of greater economic security.
We all remember what Benjamin Franklin said about that trade — that those who would make it deserve neither liberty nor security. But in such cases, when liberty is lost, it is our fault as champions of the Constitution for failing to mount a sufficiently persuasive and effective defense. And I believe our defense falls short when we fail to connect our timeless principles and values to the urgent economic issues facing the factory worker in Janesville, Wis., who is suddenly unable to provide for his family, or, in your case, the recent college graduate who finds herself in one of the worst job markets in recent memory.
We can strengthen our defense of liberty if we remember to keep in mind those who are struggling to make ends meet. What makes our Constitution such an extraordinary document is that, in making the United States the freest civilization in history, the Founders guaranteed that it would become the most prosperous as well. The American system of limited government, low taxes, sound money, and the rule of law has done more to help the poor than any other economic system ever designed.
I want to talk today in particular about the last of those — the rule of law, which is absolutely essential to all the other benefits of our system, to the prosperity and freedom of our country, and to the well being of all Americans, especially the most vulnerable.
What is the rule of law? When the Declaration of Independence cited as justification “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” the Founders were channeling Aristotle, who wrote that the rule of law in principle means that, quote, “God and intellect alone rule.”
Aristotle defined the law as “intellect without appetite,” by which he meant justice untainted by the self-interest of those in power.
The great difficulty we encounter in striving to meet Aristotle’s ideal was best summed up by James Madison: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. And if angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
But, as Madison reminded us, men are no angels, and government is “administered by men over men.” Grounded in a proper understanding of human nature, our Founders tackled this challenge head-on with a brilliant Constitution and a healthy separation of powers, binding all men to the same set of laws and preventing any one man or group of men from gaining enough power to declare themselves above the law.
The Constitution secures other rights long understood to be essential to the rule of law, such as the right to due process, meaning that the laws of the land must be transparent, consistent, and equally applied to all men, so that no man may be arbitrarily deprived of life, liberty, or property.