“All societies think of themselves, once they begin to think of themselves at all, as representing a truth, a meaning, about the nature and destiny of man, and thus about that which, in the constitution of being, is above and beyond man.”
—Willmoore Kendall, The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition
To understand what we have to do, we must understand what we once were. What the Founders constructed during those sweltering summer weeks in Philadelphia was something unprecedented, even scandalous. Navigating between monarchy and mob rule, they crafted a republic rooted in deliberative democracy, accountable to the people, but with restraints on popular passions and factional abuses. Their vision was a system within which citizens governed themselves toward common ends.
Self-governance is the revolutionary concept at the heart of our distinctive experiment in liberty. It’s the animating conviction behind neglected yet essential words that explain what the Founders intended by crafting our Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The architects of our Constitution offered these words to explain what they were doing, and why they were doing it. The Preamble articulates a great aspiration about what America can be. What’s more, it offers a vision of what we Americans can be, together. We know this is true because what follows the Preamble isn’t a document that appoints legions of government agents to do the work of producing justice, tranquility, defense, welfare, and the blessings of liberty for us. It doesn’t consign We the People to labor as loyal servants while leaving all that common good business to our overseers.
Instead, the Constitution lays out a specific—and specifically limited—set of responsibilities assigned to America’s federal government apparatus, with a clear intention that those functions be subject to oversight and approval by the representatives we elect in our home states. To make the point crystal clear, the Founders tacked on two amendments to the tail-end of the Bill of Rights, noting that all the powers necessary for a people serious about pursuing justice, tranquility, welfare, and the rest of it reside—unless they’re specifically granted to federal officials in the body of the Constitution—within the states and the people:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
When we read the Preamble with these facts in mind, we hear the Founders calling all of us through the ages to participate in building up that “more perfect union,” and to do so chiefly within our communities and our states. The common good was truly intended to be a pursuit that we citizens undertake together, not a Beltway scrum watched from afar. The Founders certainly meant for the federal government to have an essential role—indeed, their impetus for crafting the Constitution was the failure of states under a looser confederation to engage in the essential cooperation necessary to preserve the nation and allow their various citizens to engage in productive commerce. The purpose of the federal apparatus wasn’t to pursue the common good, however, so much as enable our pursuit of it. Nor was it even to solve only those problems states can’t solve well enough on their own, which is how its hyperactivity today is so often justified. It was created to “form a more perfect union,” within which we citizens would establish justice, promote the general welfare, secure all those unspecified blessings of liberty, and so on.
The common good was truly intended to be a pursuit that we citizens undertake together, not a Beltway scrum watched from afar.
Why did the Founders trust states more than their own creation? Because state and local officials are closer to the people. We have greater ability to communicate with and hold them accountable than we do officials living in a distant city. James Madison explained it like this:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.
Taking all this alongside the documents and speeches swirling around that pivotal point in the history not just of America but of the world, it’s abundantly clear that in our system of governance, We the People have the most important responsibility of all, because government officials are only allowed to do what we authorize them to do. They represent us, and they’re supposed to be accountable to us. We citizens thus have a double role. We are invited into community with our neighbors, where we can pursue all manner of joint, voluntary endeavors. We are also called to appoint and hold accountable legislators who have specific, limited mandates to pursue some aspects of a common good.
This is self-governance. We select representatives to make the decisions about what our government does, and to rein in agents of the state who act contrary to the law and the people. We, through our authorized representatives, pursue portions of the common good through our government, which is limited to things that only governments can do well, and bounded by the Constitution’s protections of minority rights. Being believers in freedom and free enterprise, moreover, the Founders knew most of our common-good pursuits would happen via our own hands, in our communities. They shared an understanding of democracy alien to us now, wherein voting is a last resort, after efforts to reason together and accommodate one another’s views have failed to achieve consensus. From churches to social clubs to charitable endeavors to neighborhood-watch programs, Americans have traditionally enriched one another’s lives not via the ministrations of government agents, nor by subjecting every decision to a vote, but cooperatively in our communities, with our own hands and labors.
Not that we’re fussy about the distinction between what’s public and private. Economists and ideologues fret over those things, whereas normal people just want what works. Public schools, libraries, and post offices can be community rallying points the same as barber shops, skating rinks, and local taverns. Whatever the root source of an institution’s funds or the intentions of its creators, what ultimately gives or denies it vibrancy is whether people in the community where it sits choose to integrate it into their lives, and thereby let it integrate them into one another’s lives.
They shared an understanding of democracy alien to us now, wherein voting is a last resort, after efforts to reason together and accommodate one another’s views have failed to achieve consensus.
The necessity of citizen action for all this to work reveals the centrality of two requirements for self-governance: freedom; and virtue. The first is a condition in which people must live, the second a quality they must possess. Numerous philosophical and theological tomes have explored the meanings of freedom and virtue. For our purposes here, common-sense definitions will do. Freedom is the absence of external constraint. Virtue, meanwhile, entails the presence of internal restraint. It encompasses many good things we choose to do, like helping our neighbor and working hard, as well as the good we accomplish by refraining from evil. John Adams put it this way:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. […] Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
The Founders recognized freedom and virtue as counterbalancing forces in a healthy community. Freedom without virtue leads to license and ruin. It will manifest itself in what we see today, unfortunately, in parts of our country where norms and values have broken down, yielding consequences like neglected children, decaying buildings, and no trust among neighbors. Virtue without freedom likewise leads to the same sorry state. Absent freedoms like private property and free enterprise, communities remain desperately poor. They become subservient, and the state must step in to make their denizens behave. Good behavior that’s forced rather than chosen ceases to be virtue.
Understanding these twin pillars of self-governance reveals the ultimate threat our unchecked federal behemoth poses. It undermines productive, cooperative endeavors in our communities. It seizes not only authority that originally resided in states and communities, but even that reserved for our elected representatives in Congress. Everything from where our sons and daughters are sent to die in undeclared wars, to whether local libraries can restrict access to pornography, has been taken out of the hands of we citizens and our elected representatives. This decades-long overrun of freedoms large and small has subtly and methodically undermined the virtues essential to a free citizenry, and has replaced them with subservience. The softly creeping tyranny of the political class impoverishes life and spirit.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
None of this is new to students of the Constitution and American history. There’s a reason I reiterate it here, however, in light of a metastasizing federal bureaucracy, a succession of US presidents who’ve overrun the Constitution in everything from trade to war powers, and courts that either (on the conservative side) regretfully apply the evolved agency understandings of vague laws, or (on the liberal side) happily invent progressive understandings of the law. American freedom, students of history know, began in the states. Now that the political class has turned Washington, DC, into an imperial city, freedom can only be reclaimed by the states.
The truth we must face is that we cannot allow the present level of power to reside in the federal government and still hold it accountable via the mechanisms woven into our Constitution. The American Founders designed a system to keep that kind of power out of the hands of federal politicians and agents, not make them behave nicely once they’ve grasped it. Perhaps there’s no fixing things now. Perhaps America will go the way of other empires in decline. But we may as well face the reality we’re in. Admitting it, as they say, is the first step.