The True Genius of the U.S. Constitution

Body: 

June 15, 2012

By David T. Koyzis

This year marks the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution, by far the oldest functioning constitutional document still in effect. It has weathered the vicissitudes of history, including a devastating Civil War that threatened to fragment the nation and its people permanently. By contrast, the German Basic Law dates only from 1949, and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic from 1958. What is the key to the U.S. Constitution’s remarkable longevity?

One well-known narrative has it that the Founding Fathers were skilled constitutional architects, fashioning a political system whose internal institutions are so perfectly balanced that no one of these could gain the upper hand and suppress the others. The Fathers read Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in which the author argued that liberty is most likely to thrive under a constitution providing that power check power. Where legislative, executive and judicial powers are not separated, there can be no liberty.

Yet Montesquieu never claimed to have invented this separation of powers. “One nation there is also in the world that has for the direct end of its constitution political liberty,” by which he meant England, with its careful balancing of the interests of king, lords and commons, particularly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The U.S. Constitution largely reflects the priorities of James Madison, who, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, wrote to defend the new federal republic in terms heavily dependent on Montesquieu’s ideas. Separation of powers, checks and balances among the three branches of government, plus the federal division of powers were intended to prevent tyranny. As Walter Dean Burnham has put it, “No faction, no mobocracy, has ever controlled the government of the United States, because it is not one government but 80,000 governments.” So thoroughly was Madison persuaded that these mechanisms would protect liberty that he initially thought an explicit bill of rights unnecessary.

Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. Expertise in constitutional engineering is hardly sufficient to create a functioning political system that protects the legitimate spheres of competence of the people with all their diverse responsibilities.

In 1993 the Russian people approved a new constitutional document intended to replace its unwieldy Soviet-era predecessor of 1978. The institutions that the new constitution establishes look excellent on paper. Borrowing elements of the American and French constitutions, it sets up a president, a prime minister and government (i.e., cabinet), a bicameral Federal Assembly consisting of a State Duma and Federation Council, an independent judiciary and a federal division of powers. Impressively, the 1993 Constitution contains more provisions claiming to protect religious freedom than does the U.S. Constitution.

And yet. And yet. . .

For all of the vaunted safeguards in the Russian Constitution, few will doubt that Vladimir Putin, who recently returned to the presidency after a four-year absence, has accumulated a disproportionate degree of political power in his own person at the expense of the other institutions of government. Might a careful tinkering with the Constitution’s provisions rectify this obvious imbalance? Sad to say, probably not. In the absence of a vibrant tradition of the rule of law among the Russian people themselves, it seems unlikely that institutional reform by itself will effect a better balance of powers within the political system.

This suggests that the true genius of the U.S. Constitution lies less with the wisdom of its 18th-century framers and more with the American people themselves, whose culture and traditions have been uniquely supportive of this form of representative governance. The Founding Fathers appear to have understood this. According to John Adams, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

This is not to say, of course, that political institutions and institutional arrangements do not matter. They do indeed. But they are not the most important factor in a constitution’s long-term success. More significant by far are the distinctive customs and mores of a people related to the concrete tasks of governance. These cannot be created overnight by fiat; they can only be nurtured quietly and maintained vigilantly over the course of many generations.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has just completed a second book on authority, office and the image of God.

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.