"Unlike most of the 111 that preceded it, the 112th Congress must begin the process of restoring the national regime and civic culture the Founders bequeathed. This will require reviving the rule of law, reasserting the relevance of the Constitution and affirming the reality of American exceptionalism."
20th Century Quotes on America: Exceptional Founding
"One of the tea ships in Boston harbour was boarded at night, and the tea chests were flung into the Atlantic. That was the mild beginning of the greatest Revolution that had ever broken out among civilised men. The dispute had been reduced to its simplest expression, and had become a mere question of principle. The argument from the Charters, the argument from the Constitution, was discarded. The case was fought out on the ground of the Law of Nature, more properly speaking, of Divine Right. On that evening of 16th December 1773, it became, for the first time, the reigning force in History. By the rules of right, which had been obeyed till then, England had the better cause. By the principle which was then inaugurated, England was in the wrong, and the future belonged to the colonies. ...
The Americans proceeded to give themselves a Constitution which should hold them together more effectively than the Congress which carried them through the war, and they held a Convention for the purpose at Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The difficulty was to find terms of union between the three great states—Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts—and the smaller ones, which included New York. The great states would not allow equal power to the others; the small ones would not allow themselves to be swamped by mere numbers. Therefore one chamber was given to population, and the other, the Senate, to the states on equal terms. Every citizen was made subject to the federal government as well as to that of his own state. The powers of the states were limited. The powers of the federal government were actually enumerated, and thus the states and the union were a check on each other. That principle of division was the most efficacious restraint on democracy that has been devised; for the temper of the Constitutional Convention was as conservative as the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary.
The Federal Constitution did not deal with the question of religious liberty. The rules for the election of the president and for that of the vice–president proved a failure. Slavery was deplored, was denounced, and was retained. The absence of a definition of State Rights led to the most sanguinary civil war of modern times. Weighed in the scales of Liberalism the instrument, as it stood, was a monstrous fraud. And yet, by the development of the principle of Federalism, it has produced a community more powerful, more prosperous, more intelligent, and more free than any other which the world has seen."
"Liberty--liberty within the law--and civilization are inseparable, and though both were threatened we find them now secure; and there comes to Americans the profound assurance that our representative government is the highest expression and surest guaranty of both.
Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion, feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weight of responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspiration of the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God's intent in the making of this new-world Republic. Ours is an organic law which had but one ambiguity, and we saw that effaced in a baptism of sacrifice and blood, with union maintained, the Nation supreme, and its concord inspiring. We have seen the world rivet its hopeful gaze on the great truths on which the founders wrought. We have seen civil, human, and religious liberty verified and glorified. In the beginning the Old World scoffed at our experiment; today our foundations of political and social belief stand unshaken, a precious inheritance to ourselves, an inspiring example of freedom and civilization to all mankind. Let us express renewed and strengthened devotion, in grateful reverence for the immortal beginning, and utter our confidence in the supreme fulfillment."
"America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just."
"It was the fact that our Declaration of Independence containing these immortal truths was the political action of a duly authorized and constituted representative public body in its sovereign capacity, supported by the force of general opinion and by the armies of Washington already in the field, which makes it the most important civil document in the world. It was not only the principles declared, but the fact that therewith a new nation was born which was to be founded upon those principles and which from that time forth in its development has actually maintained those principles, that makes this pronouncement an incomparable event in the history of government. It was an assertion that a people had arisen determined to make every necessary sacrifice for the support of these truths and by their practical application bring the War of Independence to a successful conclusion and adopt the Constitution of the United States with all that it has meant to civilization."
"When we come to examine the action of the Continental Congress in adopting the Declaration of Independence in the light of what was set out in that great document and in the light of succeeding events, we can not escape the conclusion that it had a much broader and deeper significance than a mere secession if territory and the establishment of a new nation. Events of that nature have been taking place since the dawn of history. One empire after another has arisen, only to crumble away as its constituent parts separated from each other and set up independent governments of their own. Such actions long ago became commonplace. They have occurred too often to hold the attention of the world and command the administration and reverence of humanity. There is something beyond the establishment of a new nation, great as that event would be, in the Declaration of Independence which has ever since caused it to be regarded as one of the great charters that not only was to liberate America but was everywhere to ennoble humanity.
It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles, that July 4, 1776, has come to be regarded as one of the greatest days in history. Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.
If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination."
"The men who wrote the Constitution were the men who fought the Revolution. They had watched a weak emergency government almost lose the war, and continue economic distress among thirteen little republics, at peace but without effective national government.
So when these men planned a new government, they drew the kind of agreement which men make when they really want to work together under it for a very long time.
For the youngest of nations they drew what is today the oldest written instrument under which men have continuously lived together as a nation.
The Constitution of the United States was a layman's document, not a lawyer's contract. That cannot be stressed too often. Madison, most responsible for it, was not a lawyer; nor was Washington or Franklin, whose sense of the give-and-take of life had kept the Convention together.
This great layman's document was a charter of general principles, completely different from the 'whereases' and the 'parties of the first part' and the fine print which lawyers put into leases and insurance policies and installment agreements."
"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right… . In the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country."
"To our forefathers it seemed something of a miracle that this Nation was able to go through the agonies of the American Revolution and emerge triumphant. They saw, in our successful struggle for independence, the working of God's hand. In his first inaugural address, George Washington said, 'No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States.'"
"Whereas the French Jacobins and the Russian communists were fanatics, convinced that they were justified in resorting to the most ruthless measures in order to maintain the absolute power with which they believed they could bring a paradise on earth to their followers, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were pre-eminently men of reason, convinced of their own fallibility and of the fallibility of those who would follow them.
Well versed in history and familiar with human nature as a result of their own active political careers, these men recognized as the gravest threat to the free institutions which they wished to establish on an enduring basis, excessive concentration of state power, regardless of who might possess this power or for what purposes it might be used."
"Whereas the evolution in France under the Jacobins and in the Soviet Union under the communists was toward sheer absolutism, with no element of effective check and balance, the American Constitution provides for three independent, coequal branches of government, each entrusted with carefully defined functions, each forbidden to trespass on the spheres of the other two. Because of this strong belief that the best of men cannot be safely trusted with too much power, many assurances against abuses of administrative power, even when sanctioned by majority vote, are imbedded in the Constitution. John Adams, the most profound political thinker among the framers of the Constitution, envisaged the art of maintaining stable government under free institutions as the creation of an effective equilibrium, with one form of power checking another and excluding the possibility that government might develop into a monster, a 'leviathan'—to use the term of the seventeenth century political scientist, Thomas Hobbes—that would so dominate and submerge its citizens as to mold them like robots for its purposes.
It is a modern fashion to demand a strong executive and an 'affirmative state' that will do for the individual many of the things which were formerly left to his exertion and initiative. But it is significant that the Constitution, the quintessence of the ripe wisdom of the men who won American liberty and then gave liberty a framework of law and orderly self-government, devotes as much attention to telling the executive and legislative branches of government what they may not do as to specifying what they are supposed to do."
"Among the big revolutions, the American was unique in two ways. It made no appeal to class hatred and class envy. And it made no glittering demagogic promises to cure all human ills by some overnight reconstruction of society. Reading through the basic documents of the American Revolution and the work of political construction which followed the successful elimination of British rule—the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Constitution—one finds no appeals to proscription, to hatred, to spoliation. One finds only a reasoned statement of the grievances which led Americans to the conviction that the connection with the British Crown must be severed and a spirited vindication of the inalienable rights of free men, under God and natural law.
In the same way, the Constitution is notably sparing of promises that the state will give the people who live under it this or that material benefit. On the other hand, it is full of guarantees against arbitrary abuses of governmental power. The underlying assumption is that a society of self-reliant individuals, protected against governmental dictation and regimentation, will find within itself the necessary combination of individual effort and cooperative resources to create roads and schools and all the other prerequisites of civilized living in what was then largely an undeveloped wilderness. And what impressed Alexis de Tocqueville and other observant Europeans who saw America in its early stage of development was the instinct and the capacity of Americans to dispense with state aid, to solve their problems on a basis of individual, voluntary, cooperative, and local energies."
"The good Lord raised this mighty Republic to be a home for the brave and to flourish as the land of the free-not to stagnate in the swampland of collectivism, not to cringe before the bully of communism.
Now, my fellow Americans, the tide has been running against freedom. Our people have followed false prophets. We must, and we shall, return to proven ways-- not because they are old, but because they are true. We must, and we shall, set the tide running again in the cause of freedom. And this party, with its every action, every word, every breath, and every heartbeat, has but a single resolve, and that is freedom - freedom made orderly for this nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom - balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the slavery of the prison cell; balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle."
"'[American] Conservatives' have the right to that title only in a particular sense. In fact, they are old-fashioned liberals. . . . Their concentration on freedom from governmental interference has more to do with nineteenth century liberalism than with traditional conservatism, which asserts the right of the community to restrain freedom in the name of the common good."
"When I look over the history of [this] country, of the United States--and I think all of you, as you look at it, will agree with this--America became the strongest and the richest and the freest country in the world not because of what government did, but because what people did. People made America, and that is what we must remember today. I refer to the spirit of self-reliance that has built this great country, but the spirit of people who asked not what is the government going to do for me, but what can I do for myself and for my country. That is what built America, and that is what will build it in the future."
"The United States began with no 'history,'--the first such experiment in political sociology--and for much of its existence as a society, its orientation was to the 'future,' to its Manifest Destiny mission. Today that sense of destiny has been shattered. Nature and religion have vanished as well. We are a nation like all other nations--Santayana once said that Americans were inexperienced in poisons, but we have acquired skill in that area as well--except that we have, in looking back, a unique history, a history of constitutionalism and comity."
"The unique American union of the known and the unknown, the tried and the untried, has been the foundation for our liberty and the secret of our great success. In this country, individuals can be the masters rather than the helpless victims of their destiny. We can make our own opportunities and make the most of them.
In the space of two centuries, we have not been able to right every wrong, to correct every injustice, to reach every worthy goal. But for 200 years, we have tried and we will continue to strive to make the lives of individual men and women in this country and on this Earth better lives--more hopeful and happy, more prosperous and peaceful, more fulfilling and more free. This is our common dedication, and it will be our common glory as we enter the third century of the American adventure."
"The Constitution audaciously proposed a new plan of government--a government through which the new Nation's people could, in the words of the Preamble, 'form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity . . .'"
"Before the era of the American Revolution a constitution was rarely ever distinguished from the government and its operations. Traditionally in English culture a constitution referred not only to fundamental rights but also to the way the government was put together or constituted. A constitution was the disposition of the government; it even had medical or physiological connotations, like the constitution of the human body. ...The English constitution, in other words, included both fundamental principles and rights and the existing arrangement of governmental laws, customs, and institutions.
By the end of the Revolutionary era, however, the Americans' idea of a constitution had become very different from that of the English. A constitution was now seen to be no part of the government at all. A constitution was a written document distinct from and superior to all the operations of government. ...
It was a momentous transformation of meaning. It involved not just a change in the Americans' political vocabulary but an upheaval in their whole political culture. In the short span of less than three decades Americans created a whole new way of looking at government."
"For Englishmen therefore, as William Blackstone, the great eighteenth-century jurist pointed out, there could be no distinction between the 'constitution or frame of government' and 'the system of laws'. All were of a piece: every act of Parliament was part of the English constitution and all law, customary and statute, was thus constitutional. 'Therefore,' concluded the English theorist William Paley, 'the terms constitutional and unconstitutional, mean legal and illegal.'
Nothing could be more strikingly different from what Americans came to believe. Indeed, it was precisely on this distinction between'"legal' and 'constitutional' that the American and the British constitutional traditions diverged at the Revolution. During the 1760s and seventies the colonists came to realize that although acts of Parliament, like the Stamp Act of 1765, might be legal, that is, in accord with the acceptable way of making law, such acts could not thereby be automatically considered constitutional, that is, in accord with the basic principles of rights and justice that made the English constitution what it was. ...Under this pressure of events the Americans came to believe that the fundamental principles of the English constitution had to be lifted out of the law-making and other institutions of government and set above them."
"But these were not the only contributions. With the idea of a constitution as fundamental law immune from legislative encroachment more firmly in hand, some state judges during the 1780s began cautiously moving in isolated cases to impose restraints on what the assemblies were enacting as law. In effect they said to the legislatures, as George Wythe, judge of the Virginia supreme court did in 1782, 'Here is the limit of your authority; and hither shall you go, but no further.' These were the hesitant beginnings of what would come to be called judicial review--that remarkable American practice by which judges in the ordinary courts of law have the authority to determine the constitutionality of acts of the state and federal legislatures. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world."
"These then were the great contributions to constitutionalism that Americans in the Revolutionary era made to the world-the modern idea of a constitution as a written document, the device of a convention for creating and amending constitutions, the process of popular ratification, and the practice of judicial review. The sources of these constitutional contributions went back deep in Western history. For centuries people had talked about fundamental law and the placing of limits on the operations of government. But not until the American Revolution had anyone ever developed such regular and everyday institutions not only for controlling government and protecting the rights of individuals but also for changing the very framework by which the government operated. Americans in 1787 and in numerous state constitutional conventions thereafter demonstrated to the world how a people could fundamentally and yet peaceably alter their forms of government. In effect they had institutionalized and legitimized revolution. After these American achievements, discussions of constitutionalism could never again be quite the same."
"I've read the constitutions of a number of countries, including the Soviet Union's. Now, some people are surprised to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their constitution provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Well, if this is true, why is the Constitution of the United States so exceptional?
Well, the difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it's so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. In those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those countries what they're allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the Government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history has just exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters and government is their servant."
"The revolutionary ideology which became the American Creed is liberalism in its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century meanings, as distinct from conservative Toryism, statist communitarianism, mercantilism, and noblesse oblige dominant in monarchical, state-church-formed cultures."
"It seems obvious that the initial step is to grasp the very essence of Americanism: '. . . that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty . . .' This acknowledges the Creator as the endower of our rights to life and liberty and, for the first time in the history of nations, casts government out of that role.
Until 1776, men had been killing each other by the millions over the age-old question as to which form of authoritarianism should preside as sovereign over human lives and livelihood. The argument, till then, had not been between freedom and authoritarianism, but over what degree of bondage. Our heritage stems from this glorious triumph of human liberty—everyone free to act creatively as he chooses."