Our greatest institution

Published 10:08 pm Thursday, March 3, 2011

“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.”

So begins the document that provided the framework for a new nation, a document that would at various times unite and divide that nation, a document that would make history by its very existence. So begins a document that delineates the line in America between governmental powers and personal freedoms.

On this date in 1789, citizens of the new American republic witnessed the birth of the government that had been conceived nine months earlier when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new U.S. Constitution. By May 29, 1790, all 13 of the original united states had ratified the document.

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From the beginning, this founding document has been a source of controversy. In fact, its ratification came about only after the promise that it would be amended almost immediately — the first 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution in 1791 — and the calls for changes to the document continue to this day. Even more tellingly, the differences in the Constitution’s interpretation consume the nation’s politicians, pundits and legal practitioners, and those differences guide the course of much political debate even today.

But three words — the first three, “We the People …” — provide an unshakeable foundation for life in America, and they should be a guiding principle to those nations in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa — indeed, anywhere people strive to live free — that are in the process of reinventing themselves after deposing tyrants and madmen. Those three words proclaim that the Constitution was a creation of the people, who therefore gave the federal and state governments a limited set of rights, reserving the rest to themselves.

Under the American constitutional republic, government exists at the pleasure of its people. All around the world, we can see the horrible results of governing systems that were set up under the reverse system. New images on television and the Internet each day lately prove the value of the proposition that men (and women) are not truly free until they can shoulder the responsibility of ruling themselves.

The United States Constitution is the oldest written national constitution in the world. It is also, interestingly, the shortest. Considering those two points, the government it created is at times an unsurprisingly clumsy and doddering institution. But it is one that Americans can renew every time they vote for someone who stands for federal office (or even stand for office themselves), every time they write a letter to the editor of their newspaper, every time they call a radio talk show.

Today, we celebrate that creation, warts and all. It still stands as the most important institution ever invented by man.