I’m honored and delighted Constituting America would extend me an opportunity to conclude this year’s round of essays on the amendment process and to address the genius of the U.S. Constitution.
Our Founding Fathers believed in some simple and yet, for their times, absolutely revolutionary ideas. One of these ideas was that every individual possessed fundamental rights even prior to these rights ever being put into writing. Recall the words of the Declaration that these rights were “unalienable” and their existence a “self-evident” truth.
Another revolutionary idea was that government power or action essentially occurs at the expense of individual rights and liberties. This idea turned completely upside down the reality of nearly every government in history to that point. Most systems of rule placed a monarch, tyrant, or oligarchy at the top of subservient masses. Even in colonial times, many of us may forget, Americans were “subjects” to the British crown.
A remarkable thing about our system is that we place all of the citizenry at the top of the hierarchy.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the Founders put in writing exactly how Americans would rule themselves within a framework of individual liberty. The document announced to the world a new concept: limited government at the heel of free people.
George Washington described this concept in a letter to a nephew shortly after the conclusion of the convention. “The power under the Constitution will always be in the people. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interests, or not according to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled.”
Moreover, not only could representatives be changed, but the document itself could be altered. The Constitution’s amendment process is self-government at work. Other writers of this series over the past 90 days highlight more than two centuries of reform and adjustment. Our Founders set up an amazing basic framework where citizens will forever have the privilege and right, under Article V, of making amendments.
During my early years in the House I worked for the ratification of the 27th Amendment, a provision dealing with Congressional pay originally part of the Bill of Rights but left un-ratified until 1992. It was a privilege to see the genius of our Founders at work again, two centuries later. My respect for that genius has only grown.
Shortly after my swearing in as Speaker of the House at the start of the 112th Congress, the Constitution was read in full on the House floor. To the best of my knowledge, this had never been done before in American history. I hope and trust a new tradition has been initiated.
This was done not only to honor liberty-loving Americans who take seriously Washington’s advice to recall “contrary” representatives, but because my Republican colleagues had promised to put our founding documents in their proper perspective. In our Pledge to America, we said: “We pledge to honor the Constitution as constructed by its framers and honor the original intent of those precepts that have been consistently ignored – particularly the Tenth Amendment, which grants that all powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
My colleagues and I also passed a House rule that requires Members to cite Constitutional authority in every piece of legislation they introduce. The American people deserve to know that the laws we pass and the actions we take comport with the spirit of our Constitution.
Let me again thank Constituting America for their education work. They live by the admonition of James Madison: “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
Since its ratification in 1788 the success of our Constitution has been a precious gift worth defending. It is a light for the rest of the world and a torch to be handed to future generations.
The Honorable John Boehner represents the 8th Congressional District of Ohio, and is serving in the 112th Congress as the 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.