On September 17, Americans will observe the 228th anniversary of the adoption and signing of the U.S. Constitution by the Constitutional Convention. I commend Janine Turner, Cathy Gillespie and everyone associated with Constituting America for their efforts to defend our Constitution and educate people about its foundational significance. Also, I am humbled to accept their gracious invitation to participate as an essayist in this year’s 90 Day Study on executive overreach.
The backdrop for President Reagan’s inaugural on January 20, 1981 was unforgettable. The United States had endured a decade of decline in our economy at home and our prestige abroad. Some Americans feared our best days were behind us as they had struggled through years of staggeringly high inflation, persistent unemployment, and shrinking incomes. The gears of American industry were slowed by an ever-expanding barrage of high-handed bureaucracies and policies established by administrations dating back to the New Deal.
But on that cold January day, a special man and a big moment came together. In his inaugural address the new president offered a new direction, but one based on the clear, foundational principles of the U.S. Constitution.
In the address, Reagan described the nation’s severe economic challenges, what he called “this present crisis,” as well as his administration’s objective – “a healthy, vigorous, growing economy.” He then used some of the sharpest language of any modern president to underscore the Constitution’s spirit of limited power guided by the people’s approval. “We are a nation that has a government, not the other way around,” he said. “Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”
At the time of this address, I was a young, small businessman in the plastics and packaging industry. Like many Americans, I was dealing with the effects of out-of-control taxation and regulation. To me, government was killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
To this day, the simplicity of Reagan’s speech and his strong admonitions guides my work in the House of Representatives. He wanted government “to stand by our side, not ride on our back.” He established as “first priorities” the reawakening of America’s manufacturing base and the reduction of punitive taxes.
The latter goal was accomplished seven months after his inauguration and five months after an assassination attempt. On August 13, 1981, President Reagan signed the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, which slashed tax rates for individuals and businesses, rates which had grown to as high as 70 percent. These tax cuts and other initiatives during Reagan’s two terms led to an economic resurgence.
During the 1980s the economy grew by one-third. Seventeen million new workers were working longer hours per day. Household incomes rose. Unemployment dipped to the 5 percent range. Productivity and manufacturing surged, as did the savings rate. Inflation, once at double-digit levels, stabilized and decreased significantly. And interest rates, which had climbed to more than 18 percent in 1981, steadily fell during the Reagan era. It was, as described in the famous 1984 campaign ad, “morning in America.”
But this economic rebound grew from a clear recognition that federal power is constitutionally limited and that ultimately the people make the wisest economic decisions, not bureaucracies in Washington. President Reagan faced his administration’s challenges with this basic truth in mind. His first inaugural address made a transformational impact still remembered” and relevant” today as our nation faces big government power grabs such as ObamaCare.
If America’s long tradition of enlightened self-government is to survive, the people must not only be acquainted with our founding documents; they must also understand the thinking that produced them. The Constitution is not only the starting point of the American republic, as President Reagan made clear; it is the culmination of several centuries of serious thinking about the role of individuals in relation to each other and the Creator, and the most helpful way for each of us to secure our God-given liberties. I want to thank Janine Turner and Cathy Gillespie. I am humbled by their invitation to appear as a guest essayist. Let me also thank everyone at Constituting America for their hard work to, as they put it, “make the Constitution cool” for kids and adults and accurately teach the history of our great nation.
Read Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Speech here.
The Honorable John Boehner represents the 8th Congressional District of Ohio, and is serving in the 113th Congress as the 53rd Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
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.
June 22, 2012