I was a nerdy kid. (For those who know me, this comes as no surprise.) I was far more interested in books, especially history books, than sports or video games. (I still have a shelf of books on the American Founding that I collected throughout my childhood.) As a kid, I loved reading about and imagining myself as part of the founding generation.
This week – Constitution Week – I am reflecting on what was so intriguing to me about the American Founding and the Constitution. Part of it was certainly the romance of the noble patriots overthrowing the repressive king; but even as a kid, there was something more that captivated me, something in the ideas expressed by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
I am no less enamored with the Constitution and its ideas as an adult. My shelf of books is larger and the books are thicker, but my fascination remains. Today, instead of imagining myself as part of the events, I am intrigued by the ideas that motivated the founders.
During this Constitution Week, I found myself re-reading one of the most influential writers of the period, Thomas Paine. His pamphlet, Common Sense, sums up the thinking of the founding generation, and one part in particular jumped out at me:
But where, say some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honours, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the Charter; let it be brought forth placed on the Divine Law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.
The law must be king in any free country. In the years since America’s founding, a profound effort has been made to better understand and apply this concept. However, it quickly becomes clear – as it was clear to the founders – that without recognition of the individual, the law as king can become as tyrannical as any monarch.
John Adams, writing the preamble to the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, lays out the importance of the individual:
All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
These two principles—the law as king and the importance of the individual—guided the writing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The notes of James Madison, often regarded as the father of the Constitution, show how foundational these ideas were to the founders.
In the 232 years following the Constitutional Convention, we have strived to live up to these ideals. We have not always been successful, but as I take the time to reflect on the Constitution this week, my mind is on the power of these ideals and the promise they offer for the future.
In many ways, I am convinced that it was this promise that intrigued me as a kid—a promise that continues to intrigue and inspire me.
Meet the Author
Ryan Yonk is the undergraduate program director for the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and a lecturer in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio.
Read more on this subject here.