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Hillsdale College

Today, the Constitution is Relevant

By Dr. Larry P. Arnn
Hillsdale College

The 4th of July cover article of Time magazine claims that the Constitution is irrelevant.


As proof of its irrelevance, Time lists a dozen products of modern society inconceivable to the framers, including antibiotics, “sexting,” and Medicare. The Constitution’s only virtue, they say, is that it has many meanings and thus leaves us able to do whatever we want to do.

But not everything has changed since 1787. When it comes to ordering society under the rule of law, what is most important? Knowledge of “collateralized debt obligations” or knowledge of human nature?

Here are a few things the framers did know something about: Religious Freedom. Education. Tyranny. Friendship. Happiness. Sovereignty of the People. Virtue.

The Constitution does not allow us to do whatever we want to do. In the words of James Madison, the Constitution was framed out of the belief that “it is the reason, alone, of the public, that ought to control and regulate the government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.”

The genius of the Constitution lies in its having a definite meaning on the fundamentals–that every individual has rights, that the people are sovereign, and that the governmental powers must remain separated–while leaving wide latitude to local government, or the people themselves, on issues not specifically addressed in the Constitution.

The framers were no gods; the amendment procedure was included for good reason. Yet for more than two centuries the United States has flourished in a project long thought impossible: self-government.

Liberty. Equality. Self-government.

If the Fourth of July is a celebration of these things, it is a celebration of the Constitution as much as the Declaration of Independence. No constitution in history has proven itself more deeply committed to these principles, and no nation has been more richly blessed in return.

The basic truth within the Constitution is that the government cannot have limitless power, for the simple reason that government is made up of people. A Constitution with no definite meaning gives free reign to the passions of those people within and without the government. A Constitution with a meaning honored and obeyed becomes a guardian of all people, for it sustains a government that is strong within its defined powers but limited in order to protect the liberty and equality of citizens.

Instead of scoffing at those Americans concerned that their federal government has overrun its limits in the name of energy and modernity, perhaps Time should consider what an American President said about the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution on the 150th anniversary of July 4th, 1776:

“It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

– Calvin Coolidge
July 5, 1926

Read the entirety of President Coolidge’s “Speech on the Occasion of the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth President of Hillsdale College. Before coming to Hillsdale, Dr. Arnn was research assistant to Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and was the President of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. Each year, he teaches courses on the United States Constitution and the statesmanship of Churchill.

Visit our website, www.hillsdale.edu, for more information about Hillsdale College.

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