On this 234th Constitution Day, here are eight reasons why conservatives — indeed, every American — should love our constitution.
First, it is uniquely American. Before the Articles of Confederation in 1777, few, if any, countries on earth had written constitutions that were actually binding on the people who ruled them, much less one ratified by the people. The British had a patchwork of documents and traditions, but they did not have an American-style written constitution, and they still don’t. Americans did not invent elections or individual rights or republics without kings, but we did invent this form of constitutional government — and the one we made in 1787 is now the oldest continuous constitution still in use.
Second, it is democratic. The nation’s elite met in secret to write it — but they then went to the people and asked them to ratify it. Twenty-seven changes since then have been made that way: Congress may propose amendments, but it has to ask the state legislatures, and the time it takes to do that almost invariably means that the people doing the ratifying face an imminent or intervening election.
Third, it is conservative. I do not mean that it advances conservative policy, although it surely does that in a number of ways. I mean that the very act of writing down the rules the people made as written law, and deciding that those rules must stay that way forever until the people change them, is inherently small-c conservative. It preserves the wisdom of the past — not unchangeable, but enduring until disturbed for some good and considered reason.
Fourth, it mistrusts power. Power is divided horizontally, between the three branches of government, and vertically, between federal and state authority. The branches are armed with tools, such as the veto and the impeachment power, which they may use to deter and punish overreaching by the others. Power is hard to exercise under our constitution, and that makes it easier for the people to be left alone.
Fifth, it is deliberative. The division of power and the staggered forms of election by different electorates means that it takes time and effort to activate the machinery of power, and requires the buy-in of a vast number of people. That helps us avoid rushing into irrevocable decisions.
Sixth, it is federalist. It leaves room for different states to go different ways. In the long battle against slavery, for example, there was agreement at the Constitutional Convention (after a delay) to give only the federal government the power to end the international slave trade. It also had the power to stop the interstate slave trade, but that required building a political consensus that did not exist until the country was ready to abolish slavery. How, then, would you build such a consensus? By creating a critical mass of free states that had decided to make an American way of life without slavery. The Constitution protected property rights from federal interference, but pointedly did not protect them from state interference until 1868 — which meant that slaveowners had no recourse to the federal government if their states banned slavery. By contrast, states were forbidden from interfering with contracts, entered into between free people. Two of the original states (New York and New Jersey) banned slavery under the Constitution, and New York in particular — as the largest state in 19th-century America — ended up being crucial to the development of an anti-slavery North.
Seventh, it is liberal, in the classical sense. The Constitution proceeds from the premise of the Declaration of Independence, which runs throughout its original text and is detailed in its amendments, that the protection of liberty and justice for all the people on an equal basis — and the existence of a battery of individual liberties — is fundamental to a legitimate government. That, too, is the point of writing down the rules. There is to be no privileged class with greater rights. There were disadvantaged classes left out of the original bargain, to be sure, but the very logic of a liberal government stood as a reminder of what it was missing, and the document created the mechanisms by which it could be amended to expand those liberties. The Ninth Amendment even reminds us that just by writing down some liberties, we should not assume that government should trample willy-nilly on any that were not mentioned.
Eighth, it is practical. The Constitution itself was a compromise and a second try, and the men who made it did not start from the idea of constructing an ideal union, but rather a workable one. They had written a number of state constitutions and studied how other nations had succeeded and failed. They even included provisions that would turn out to be useful after lying dormant for many years. The thing is still running because it was built to last.