Politics & Policy

The Constitution, Symbol and Plan

We need our 228-year-old Constitution now more than ever.

Queen Elizabeth II is now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, having just surpassed the formidable 63-year record of Queen Victoria. This achievement has been widely touted in the American news media, because we Americans have a great affection for Elizabeth, and an enduring fascination with the British royal family.

Why is that? This seems like rather strange behavior for a country that came into being through a revolution against one of Elizabeth’s predecessors; a country whose Constitution — the 228th anniversary of which we celebrate today — incorporated the principle that “No title of nobility” would be granted by the United States and that every state in the Union was to have a “republican” form of government — meaning: No kings and queens allowed.

Part of the answer lies in the strong bonds that still link our two nations, in the form of shared language, customs, laws, and culture. Our country may have been born in rebellion, but our Constitution’s form and contents are indebted to the British precedents and influences that shaped it. The “special relationship” between our two nations has proven deep and durable, despite our occasional differences. We have a rooted interest in the well-being of the Queen.

But there is something else at work, too. The Queen’s greatest importance is as a symbol of her nation, perhaps the most compelling symbol of national stability and unity in the world. Despite all the changes and conflicts that have afflicted British society since her reign began, her matronly presence reassures her people that something essential carries on, year in and year out.

There is something enviable about that. We feel the absence of such unifying personal symbols in our contentious nation, and many of us yearn for them – especially at the present time, when so much in our national life seems to be fiercely contested, and when the presidency itself, no matter who occupies that office, has too often become a symbol of division rather than a symbol of our abiding unity. Seeming to lack the symbols of unity, we fear that we will lose the thing itself.

#share#But we do not lack those symbols. Ever since George Washington heroically declined the office of monarch, we have been on a different path — a path on which our commitment to laws and procedures overrides our commitment to any one man or woman as our symbolic head. It is a document, our Constitution, that plays the role of democratic monarch for us, and thereby serves as the chief symbol of our national unity and our commitment to one another as one nation. That is not all the Constitution is; but it is an important part of what it is for us. Hence it is especially proper at a time of such intense contention that we pause to remember and celebrate that fact, on this Constitution Day.

Jefferson was wrong to disparage our instinct to venerate the Constitution.

One of our most distinguished Founders, Thomas Jefferson, was sometimes dismissive of the Constitution’s enduring importance, and he warned against the tendency to treat this piece of parchment as a sacred object, in the way that the ancient Hebrews treated the Ark of the Covenant. He was only half right in this. The Constitution should never be regarded as Holy Scripture, complete and unalterable, and its Framers never intended that it should be. But Jefferson was wrong to disparage our instinct to venerate the Constitution, and the fact that we have battered it and violated it and otherwise deviated from it in so many ways does not change matters. We need our 228-year-old Constitution now more than ever, primarily as the foundational charter of our liberties and our organizational plan for a limited government. But we also need it as a symbol of our nation. It is admittedly far less charming than Queen Elizabeth, and it lends itself poorly to pomp and ceremony. But it has proved far more durable than any queen or king, and its health is the key to our continued unity and prosperity as a people.


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