Even more revolutionary than America’s Declaration of Independence was its declaration of governance. It is easily overlooked that while Americans proclaimed independence on July 4, 1776, they had to wait for the Constitution to govern it. Although lacking the former document’s lightning effect, it was the latter that has assured America’s lasting impact.
It is always thus: The first, regardless how notable its successors, holds an unassailable advantage. It is no less true with America’s great documents. “When in the course of human events…” “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” In a less relativistic age, these phrases were hallowed — rather than deconstructed — into every school child’s heart.
Sadly, if the words are not reverenced as formerly, the event they announced still holds pride of patriotic place in America. Independence Day remains the American holiday. The document and event are indelible. As undoubtedly important as this document was, and remains, to America, it is important to remember its less celebrated, but even more important, successor.
Why We Preference the Declaration
The Constitution does not get its own day for several reasons. For one, it has no single day of origin. It had many. Its convention crafted it over the course of 1787’s summer and finally adopted on September 17. To take effect, it had to be ratified. The 13 states did over three years — Delaware first on December 17, 1787; New Hampshire putting it into effect on June 21, 1788; and Rhode Island finally doing so on May 29, 1790.
The Declaration of Independence is also advantaged by being simpler and more accessible. Despite its list of specific grievances, its message is general: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right, ought to be free…” Literally revolutionary and divisive then, its message is simple and unifying now: Freedom.
If the Declaration of Independence provides all the “w’s” — America’s who, what, when, where, and why — the Constitution was stuck with the unenviable task of supplying the “how.” In contrast to the Declaration of Independence’s general call for freedom, the Constitution was left with the far more difficult task of defining how freedom would govern. Where the Declaration of Independence offers freedom’s limitless promise, the Constitution is stuck with its limiting reality.
How to Limit Freedom as Little as Possible
During the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton underscored the job’s difficulty: “I believe the British government forms the best model the world ever produced.” Of course, the colonies had severed themselves from that very government. They could not then simply replicate it here, even had they possessed the means to do so. Instead, they had to forge into the uncharted.
In contrast to the Declaration of Independence’s more enviable task of proclaiming freedom, the Constitution had to limit it. Inevitably that meant giving up some to a national government. Conscious of this, its designers sought to strictly limit the national government’s authority — something hardly matching any extant government models of their day, or today’s, for that matter.
For this reason, the Constitution’s largest limitations on freedom are all on the national government it implements. Its original text narrowly defines the national government’s role. Its first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, explicitly limit it further. The last two of these, the Ninth and Tenth, reserve the rights not named in the Constitution to the people and the states.
Since then, only two amendments have increased government power over the individual and one of those — the Eighteenth, authorizing Prohibition — was later repealed by the Twenty-First.
The Constitution Makes It Possible For Us to Celebrate
Because of its more difficult task, the Constitution is far more divisive than the Declaration of Independence. We still fight over it, just as its crafters did, with the fundamental divide still being over its original purpose to create, but strictly limit, government.
While America declared its freedom on this day more than two centuries ago, it lived just 11 years under the freedom it declared, ineffectually waging a war and ineffectively governing under it. On the brink of dissolution, the 13 original states seized upon the Constitution as their solution. For 230 years, it has stood up to its more difficult job of implementing freedom.
To appreciate that job’s difficulty, consider how many peoples have declared their freedom since then, and how few have effectively retained it.
Recognizing the Constitution’s irreplaceable role in no way disparages the Declaration of Independence’s promise and courage. It is rightly honored on this, its and America’s day.
However, it is worth pausing to remember the reason we recall it so fondly is the document that followed it and embodied it so effectively. It designed a government from whole cloth then strictly limited its scope — both unheard of at the time. The Constitution’s quiet effectiveness is the reason we loudly celebrate the Declaration of Independence today.