“Don’t cheat your neighbor by moving the ancient boundary markers set up by previous generations.” - Proverbs 22:28
I have been privileged to travel to more than fifty countries, and each time I return I am more thankful that I was born in the United States. Many ungrateful people like to denigrate our nation. They act as if America were the source of evil in the world and a nation to be escaped, but the large number of people risking life and limb to enter this nation illegally tells a different story. In this nation, people know they can realize their dreams through their own efforts. We can move to any part of the country without permission from someone else. We have freedom to say whatever we want to say and to believe whatever we want to believe.
These liberties we enjoy do not exist by accident. They have not been preserved by luck. We have a governing document, the Constitution of the United States, which outlines the freedoms of the American people and establishes a nation where those freedoms are protected and honored. Written carefully by wise men, our Constitution has stood the test of time, propelling America from a position of obscurity to the highest pinnacle of the world in record time.
As James Madison said, “If it be asked what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer, the genius of the whole system, the nature of just and constitutional laws, and above all the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America—a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.” He and the other founders knew that people naturally tend to attempt to enhance their own position and power at the expense of others. This is not a characteristic of one specific race or group of people but is a common weakness among mankind in general.
Recognizing the danger of human nature, our founders wisely created a Constitution that would curtail federal power, building in checks and balances. But they also knew that a good system was not enough. If the people were not vigilant and knowledgeable about the laws and their observation, the government would expand, gradually insinuating itself into every aspect of daily living and eroding Americans’ freedoms. Not many years after the Constitution was ratified, Andrew Jackson warned the nation: “But you must remember, my fellow citizens, that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty, and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government.”
Sometimes tyranny begins subtly so that only alert citizens can spot it. Many of the founders feared that like so many other societies before us, we would not be vigilant and would allow our freedoms to be taken away by seemingly beneficial laws. Thomas Jefferson warned, “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” For instance, the government may say everyone deserves a college education and announce a program of wealth redistribution in order to make sure that everyone has a fair chance in an increasingly sophisticated world. On the surface this seems like a noble goal and could gain a lot of popular support. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it introduces a type of top-down government that allows a group of elites to determine what is good for the society. It would be wiser to let the society determine what’s good for itself and what kind of government it wishes to have through ballot initiatives and through their representatives.
Our founders put a great deal of time, effort, and money into the development of the Constitution. They desperately wanted to ensure that this was not wasted effort and that our government would remain centered on the people. They fully understood that they themselves were highly educated and exceptionally intelligent individuals who had accomplished a great deal in their own right, but they worked to make the Constitution simple enough for everyone. Unlike many of the lengthy and complex bills that are passed by Congress today, our Constitution, not counting the twenty-seven amendments, is less than seventeen pages long. Not only is it small enough to fit in a pocket and short enough to be read in one sitting, but the Constitution is also relatively simple and easy to understand. From the beginning, it was designed to be read by the common people—because the founders knew that the Constitution was for everyone, not just the elite.
The founders were right to take precautions. There is a movement among some elite thinkers today to say that the Constitution is too complicated for the average reader. Some legal scholars insist that the phrases in the Constitution do not mean what they say, and politicians torture the Constitution’s vocabulary, distorting its meaning in order to further their own agendas. When an average citizen protests, these elite thinkers respond condescendingly, saying that constitutional scholarship is a matter for experts, not for voters.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While the Constitution is indeed complex, it is simple enough to be understood by anyone with a basic education. While many of the founders were lawyers, many of the signers were businessmen or doctors. If they understood freedom enough to write the Constitution, you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to understand it today.
Unfortunately, the elites may be right in saying that among the average adult population in America, knowledge about how our government actually works is sorely lacking. Compared with the amount of knowledge about civics that was required to obtain a middle-school certificate in the late 1800s (during which time public education ended with a middle-school certificate), the knowledge of most adults today is severely deficient.
This ignorance was one of the founders’ worst fears. They were uncertain about the resolve of the American people to maintain a high level of education and interest in the affairs of government. They knew that it would be impossible to preserve the level of liberty being granted to the American people unless the people themselves were a reservoir of knowledge. John Adams said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people.” Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”
True to Jefferson’s prediction, the biggest threat to the maintenance of freedom in America in our time is lack of knowledge. Though almost every American citizen knows that we have a Constitution, few have studied it carefully, and even fewer are standing up to protect it now that it is under attack. Many Americans have never read our governing document, and many are ignorant of the liberties it guarantees and the procedures it has set up. The good news is that this can be remedied. Education is open to all, and the fact that you are reading this book is a good sign that you are ready to become a more informed American citizen. Perhaps you already know and love the Constitution and just want to learn more about it. Or perhaps this is your first effort to educate yourself. Either way, you will find much to inspire you in the following chapters. You will learn about the history of the Constitution and about its framers. You will learn about the Constitution’s governing principles as they are laid out in its preamble. You will learn about the structure of the Constitution. Most important, you will learn what you can do to defend it. After all, it is only through the efforts of millions of Americans like you that our “more perfect union” can be preserved for future generations.