In 1878, William Gladstone described the U.S. Constitution as “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Gladstone was right.
Today marks the 228th anniversary of the signing of that wonderful work, a document still admired by people around the world, still revered by millions here at home. Increasingly, however, the Constitution is being ignored or flouted—not by “We the People,” but by our ruling elite.
One key theme permeating the great document is the concept of checks and balances. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
By diffusing power—horizontally among the three separate branches of the federal government and vertically between the central government and the states—the Constitution’s Framers structured government to ensure the nation’s future strength and prosperity without sufficient power to threaten the liberty of the people.
Dividing sovereignty between two different levels—the nation and the states—was intended to prevent an unhealthy concentration of power in a single government. In the space left by a limited central government, the people could rule themselves by their own moral and social values and call on local political institutions to assist them. Where the people, through the Constitution, did consent for the central government to have a role, that role would similarly be guided by the people’s sense of what was valuable and good as articulated through the political institutions of the central government.
These safeguards on our liberty have been eroding slowly for decades. The corrosive agents are politicians who recognize no limits on their power, their activist allies in the judiciary who invent new rights, and elites in the media and academy who believe they know what is best for all Americans.
These individuals claim to focus more on “concepts of human dignity” they infer from the Constitution rather than on the actual text of the document. This subverts the Constitution’s very carefully drawn limits and leads to regrettable decisions by the Supreme Court. It has, for example, birthed reprehensible rulings such as those in Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson, which helped bring on the Civil War and then cement the Jim Crow era. More recently, it has yielded Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, declaring that the Constitution mandates what are simply policy preferences (about abortion-on-demand and marriage, respectively) shared by a bare majority of the Justices.
The judiciary is not alone to blame. No one momentous event has pushed us onto this path to tyranny. Rather, we have been slowly led by a long series of small steps mapped out by the courts, the executive branch, and Congress. Dubious legal decisions, regulations, and legislative enactments have gradually diminished our liberty and freedom, and steadily increased the power of government over our lives.
From a president who unilaterally changed laws affecting millions of illegal aliens present in the United States, to members of Congress who fail even to read the bills they pass, to states that willingly accept strings-attached deals like the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, our government today blurs the delineation of power so carefully devised by the Framers.
As citizens, we have a responsibility to demand that our government respect the limits the Constitution places on it. The continued success and viability of our democratic republic depends upon our fidelity to, and the faithful exposition and interpretation of, this Constitution, our great charter of liberty.
Edwin Meese III was the 75th attorney general of the United States and is Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow emeritus at the Heritage Foundation, which will host a lecture series on “Preserving the Constitution” throughout September and October.