Today we celebrate the 220th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It was later ratified by each of the original 13 states, taking effect on March 4, 1789.
A distinctive characteristic of this new country was that ours was to be a limited government, one that protects our individual rights and otherwise leaves us free to act on our own behalf. The heated debates in the press, the state conventions and the Constitutional Convention itself attest to the Founders’ determination that, having fought for freedom from one overreaching government, they would not create a new one.
The famous story goes that a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, upon emerging from the Constitutional Convention, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
But how can a country prevent its government from regulating more and more aspects of its citizens’ lives? It’s difficult; government by nature tends to grow. “Power,” said Lord Acton, “corrupts.” In the later days of the Roman Empire, the historian Tacitus wrote, “Corruption was rife, and legislation abounded.”
John Witherspoon, a member of the Continental Congress from New Jersey and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote: “A Republic must either preserve its virtue or lose its liberty.”
We are individuals; we are also members of society. As Americans, we share our history, our present and our future. We make choices, take risks, invent and innovate. We make judgments and decisions; we prioritize and create. We believe in individual freedom as well as the common good. We live together as family members, neighbors and coworkers. When we see our neighbors in need, we help them. (Remember those charitable people who took care of strangers after Katrina?)
The basis of social harmony is respect for the common values that can unite us in such a way that, for most people most of the time, we carry on our lives without being hindered by the intrusive or destructive behavior of others. Common courtesy, as well as shared values, helps us live together.
Unfortunately, many of us have started thinking, “What can I get away with?” rather than, “What’s the right thing to do?” As our government has become more and more intrusive, many of us have come to expect government, in a sense, to tell us what to do.
Many elected officials think we won’t choose good schools for our children unless they tell us where to go, won’t recycle or conserve resources unless compelled by law, or won’t eat healthy food unless transfats (or fill in the blank) are banned.
More seriously, many of us have begun to assume that whatever is not strictly illegal is “OK,” even if it diminishes the freedom of others to live their lives in tranquility and order. Some of us quite flagrantly do what we know is wrong (and against the law) and just hope we don’t get caught.
And it’s not just high-profile members of Congress, state legislators, CEOs and celebrities who do this.
Let’s celebrate the simplicity of the U.S. Constitution and the individual liberty it was created to defend, not only by fighting the voluminous creation of new laws (federal and state) to regulate every aspect of our lives, but by electing to govern ourselves out of respect for ourselves and each other. “Character,” it has been said, “is doing what is right when no one is looking.” And then we’ll have no trouble keeping our Republic.
Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Development Coordinator at Cascade Policy Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy research organization based in Portland, Oregon.