Guest Essayist: Tony Williams, Program Director, Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute

The Constitution

When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights.  Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.

If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights.

In Abraham Lincoln’s estimation, the Declaration of Independence was an “apple of gold” in the “picture of silver” of the Constitution.  The Constitution established a limited government that would provide for the rule of law and good governance based upon just laws that would provide for the happiness of the people, namely that their rights and liberties would be safely secured.  Thus, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were inextricably linked in the American natural rights republic.

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington upheld the Constitution and Union as the basis for wise laws, the happiness of the American people, and the preservation of liberty.  Washington prayed that:

Your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its Administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and Virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.

In 1787 and 1788, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote Federalist essays in defense of the new Constitution.  Thomas Jefferson would call them “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.”  Their genius was most obvious in their explanation of the principles on which the new government was founded.

In Federalist #51, Madison assumed a classical and Christian understanding of the flawed nature of man.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  But, since men are not angels, government is necessary and even good as it secures their natural rights and provides a rule of law for civil society.  In Federalist #55, Madison believes that humans are capable of goodness and virtue that allows them to govern themselves in a republic: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature that justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

In Federalist #39, Madison describes the nature of republican form of government.  He defines a republic as a “government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.”  This basic principle of popular sovereignty is most clearly evidenced in the Constitution in the Preamble, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.”

Tying the Constitution back to the social compact of the Declaration of Independence in Federalist #51, Madison posits that a “dependence on the people, is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.”  Nevertheless, social order and constitutionalism would best be preserved by a limited government with enumerated powers and a good framework rather than a frequent recurrence to the right of rebellion.  Therefore, Madison wrote that, “Experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

In the same essay, Madison explains the auxiliary precautions that limited the government and protected the inalienable rights of the American people.  The constant aim, Madison writes, is to divide power because of human nature in a government administered by men over men.  First, the Constitution divided the national government into three distinct and separate branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.  In a republic, Madison states, the “legislative authority necessarily predominates” because it writes the laws with majority rule and represents the sovereign people.  Therefore, the bicameral Congress would be divided into a House of Representatives and a Senate.  Second, those branches then have checks and balances over each other such as the presidential veto over legislation or the power of impeachment.  Third, in the compound, or federal, republic of the United States, power is divided among different levels of government: local, state, and national.  “Hence,” Madison writes, “a double security arises to the rights of the people.”  All of these devices were placed in the Constitution to create a durable and lasting republic that would fulfill the purposes of government under the Declaration of Independence.

In Federalist #51, James Madison stated the simple truth that, “Justice is the end of government.  It is the end of civil society.  It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”  This is the essential purpose of the American Constitution.  As Jefferson would later say of the Declaration of Independence, it was a truth that could be found in the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”  The same is no less true of the Constitution.

Read The Constitution of The United States of America here:

Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA.  He has written four books and teaches history in Williamsburg, VA. 

February 28, 2013 – Essay #9

9 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    WOW – perfect summation of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution! This essay should be required reading of EVERY citizen. The Declaration and Constitution are not antiquated documents but the very backbone of our Nation! Everything our Nation was to be about is tied into these two documents! We MUST educate ourselves and armed with knowledge, fight for our Nation against all who would do her harm!

  2. Lonnie Moffitt
    Lonnie Moffitt says:

    Lonnie Moffitt This is a great read….I think EVERYONE in the US should read this article. I love the John Adams quote: “Liberty cannot be preserved with a general knowledge among the people.” I think that we are failing this in our curent generation. There are far too many uninformed voters in our country.

    Our system of government can only survive when everyone realizes that the Constitution is the greatest document (with the exception of the Bible) ever written to govern people. The three branches of government assures the people that we can have a democratic government and neither one can dominate over the other although we are in a time in which the Executive seems to be stretching its dominance over the other two.

  3. Tony Williams
    Tony Williams says:

    Thank you very much for the kind words, my fellow citizens. I can only say that Jefferson and Madison had a very proper understanding of where to look to illuminate the principles of the constitutional republic of the people that we created. There is a reason that it has endured for 225 years after it was written.

  4. Rev. Dr. Fred M. Lassonde
    Rev. Dr. Fred M. Lassonde says:

    2003-FEB-19: California: Federal appeals court edits graduation speech: Nicholas Lassonde, was a co-salutatorian for the 1999 graduating class of Amador Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay area, He wanted to include a long Bible passage in his speech, along with a description of eternal life through Jesus as “the gift of God.” Referring to his conservative religious belief that the vast majority of humans spend eternity being tortured in Hell, he had planned to ask the audience: “Have you accepted the gift, or will you pay the ultimate price?” School principal Bill Coupe had instructed him to remove sections of his speech which he considered to be religious proselytizing. The Pleasanton Unified School District and the principal had decided that this text would have placed the district in possible violation of both the Federal and California constitutions. However, the principal allowed some religious references to be included. Lassonde mentioned that his grandfather had recently died had gone “home to be with the Lord.” He ended his speech with the words, “God bless and good luck.” He delivered the censored speech, mentioned to his audience that portions had been taken out, and said that he would hand out copies of the original complete text afterwards. Lassonde sued, claiming that his freedom of speech rights had been violated. He lost, and unsuccessfully appealed the case to a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling said, in part: “Regardless of any offered disclaimer, a reasonable dissenter still could feel that there is no choice but to participate in the proselytizing in order to attend a high school graduation. Although a disclaimer arguably distances school officials from ‘sponsoring’ the speech, it does not change the fact that proselytizing amounts to a religious practice that the school district may not coerce other students to participate in, even while looking the other way…Plaintiff, who is a devout Christian, drafted a speech that quoted extensively from the Bible. In his declaration, Plaintiff explained that he intended for the speech to ‘express his desire for fellow graduates to develop a personal relationship with God through faith in Christ in order to better their lives.’ “

  5. Dave
    Dave says:

    For me, the evidence presented in the Founders’ documents and informal writings is suggesting an image of the creation of three republics in one—a Republic of Truth, a Republic of Law, and a Republic of Virtue. The first is indicated by the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s words, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident” and “let Facts be submitted to a candid World.” The second is suggested by the Founders establishing our Constitution as our foundational law, our lex legum (Lit. Law of laws). The Latin word constituo means, “to set on a firm footing, make flourishing; to base or found upon.” An enduring republic the Founders knew would need to be set on the firm foundation of a legal structure consonant with the truths about man and about man’s relationship to other men and his relationship to the natural world. The third, a Republic of Virtue, comes to my mind every time a Founder mentions that virtue is indispensable for maintaining the fabric of our constitutional federal republic.

    Os Guinness, in his book, A Free People’s Suicide, presents to the current generation of Americans the important role we have to sustain the promise of ordered liberty for ourselves and our posterity. The Revolutionary War won us our liberty; the Constitution ordered our liberty; and it is our virtue that is required to sustain our liberty. Virtue is required to live according to those truths discoverable through our natural reason—to live according to our true nature as men and not imagine ourselves as angels or any other kind of perfect being.
    The Founders weren’t perfect, and it’s to their virtue that they recognized that fact. Would that virtue guide us today as it did the Founders. Let’s get back to being guided by Prudence (practical wisdom), Temperance (moderation), Fortitude (moral courage) and Justice (maybe, getting and giving what is due). For bonus points add two that George Washington had in spades—humility (see Farewell Address and Friberg’s A Prayer at Valley Forge) and disinterestedness (see Gordon S. Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different).

    Thank you, Mr. Williams, for a thought-provoking essay. I’m half way through The Founders’ Key—Thanks again for the recommendation, it’s a wonderful book.

  6. Rev. Dr. Fred M. Lassonde
    Rev. Dr. Fred M. Lassonde says:

    Oops, I was trying to copy what I had actually left and see now I left my last email message to my people on Ministry list. So very sorry. Please forgive my blundr. What I was wanting to leave was this that we are very fortunate to ahve Ladies and thsoe who help them doing this for us. We need to learn about our Documents (i.e. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence) and all those who influenced (and proposed ideas) what went on to form our nation. The people who are presenting this are real Heros and Patriots for doing this. God bless you all!

  7. Debbie Bridges
    Debbie Bridges says:

    It is very interesting and enlightening to re read the Constitution after now reading the works by Locke and Sidney.

  8. Chas Jones
    Chas Jones says:

    Sadly, today our three federal branches abandon and violate our Constitution on almost a daily basis. Lawlessness runs amok. The States are our next “check” against unconstitutional Acts and Actions, yet not one single State nullifies these federal violations, leaving only “the people,” collectively and individually to seek to preserve our Liberty. We are nearer to losing our Constitutions, Rule of Valid Law, and Liberty than at any time in my 57 years of life.

    Thank you Tony for this most excellent Essay! May all who read it study the History and FACTS concerning the founding of our republic … and inform and persuade everyone the readers know and meet … for if our republic falls under tyranny, the Light of Liberty will surely fail soon after.


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