What Does the Constitution Mean to Me?

We see these questions all the time: What does happiness mean to me? What does love mean to me? What does success mean to me?

Some are helpful questions — for society, for one’s faith, for one’s career.  And some are just online clickbait, racking up hits for ad revenue.

But one challenging question arises now and then, in the back of our minds if not the tip of our tongue:  What does the Constitution mean to me?

To some of the early settlers or the more recent immigrants, it’s either the vague prospects of freedom and opportunity or the very concrete matter of safety from a government that was persecuting them for being the wrong denomination, the wrong color, the wrong class.

In truth, however, there is only one technical answer, and it is that the Constitution is simultaneously two specific things: a Format and a Contract.

As a Format, the Constitution of the United States establishes how our federal government is organized. There are three branches — the president runs the executive branch and appoints a judiciary that’s independent once appointed; the legislative branch writes the laws, and is composed of a House made up of congressmen directly elected by the voters, and a Senate made up of senators that was originally to be selected by the state legislatures and governors, although now that is a state-wide popular vote.

House members serve two-year terms; senators serve six-year terms, presidents serve four-year terms.  Federal judges and justices serve for life.  There have been a few modifications here and there: term limits imposed on the president and campaign finance limits imposed on all these civil servants are relatively minor, but the 17th Amendment’s complete upheaval of the Senate’s selection was of course quite major.

But all in all, the format, to the naked eye at least, looks pretty much the same after 240 years.

As a Contract, on the other hand, the Constitution of the United States establishes how this government is limited.  This contract, between the people, their states, and this construct we call “the federal government” is severely restricted in size, scope, and authority: the federal government only exists to do — only allowed to do, in fact — certain very specific things.  

The three branches have enumerated powers: they can collect taxes and declare war, run a post office and manage foreign policy, coin money and regulate commercial disputes between the states. They collect import duties and build roads. Very specific duties.

On top of that, in case this specific, clear list of enumerated powers wasn’t enough, the states agreed upon a requirement before ratifying the document: that there also be a Bill of Rights to limit government latitude even further.  This Bill of Rights says that, even in the process of performing those enumerated duties, the federal government can still never step on our rights to freely assemble, to practice our religion, to keep and bear arms, to freely engage in political speech, etc.

And in case all this wasn’t enough, the Tenth Amendment hammers the key point home:

The 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.

In short, the Constitution is an incredibly limited contract.  Its purpose is to establish a federal government to do the things that you absolutely must have a government for, like protecting our borders and coining money, but to keep it locked down, chained up, caged, so that it can never become the ferocious wild beast that our Framers knew all governments desperately want to become.

The Framers knew that for the people to be free, the government must be chained.  And therefore also, the corollary:  if the government is not chained, then the people will be.

What are we taught about the Constitution in our classrooms today?  What have we been taught for the past few generations, in fact?

The teachers do a wonderful job of teaching that “format” part.  Our junior high students know that there are three branches. Most of them remember through high school that the congressmen serve two years and presidents serve four. Some of them even remember this much until they turn 18 and get to vote for the first time.

But how many of them are ever even taught about the other part, the part about the Constitution being a contract, a binding document that imposes strict and unbreakable bonds upon that federal government, limiting it, banning it from doing most of the wild, costly things that political candidates promise to do if the people are foolish enough to elect them?

How many teachers are even aware of this other part, in fact?  Do our teachers even realize that these — the Format and the Contract — are not two equal aspects?

Any honest reading of the Founding documents — the Federalist Papers, and even the Anti-Federalist Papers — quickly reveals that the entire purpose of the Constitution was its role as a contract.  That’s what mattered to its writers.  All that other stuff that makes up the format — the checks and balances, the age requirements, the length of terms — these were only tools in the service of the real purpose of the Constitution: to limit the size and power of government, to best safeguard the liberty of individual American citizens.

During that golden summer of 1787, the summer when 55 delegates from the several states met in Philadelphia to create this document, they toyed with all sorts of approaches. A unitary legislature or a bicameral one, a four-year term, a six-year term, or even a ten-year term for the president — everything was on the table.  They weren’t wedded to one or the other on principle; they chose the eventual format they chose because they came to the conclusion that was the best method to achieve the desired end — the Contract part. 

In the eyes of the Framers, your liberty and mine are not directly dependent on how old these people are when they’re elected or on how long they stay in office, but on what exactly they all do when they get there.

Everything that the federal government does to increase its reach serves only to decrease the people’s freedom.  Every dollar they spend reduces our standard of living, reduces our children’s opportunities in life, reduces the living conditions in which our grandchildren will grow up.

The purpose of the Constitution is to restrain such impulses.

In recent years, we have seen the federal government grow at a record clip.  We have watched it mandate untested, unproven vaccines as a condition of travel, employment, even assembly. We have seen federal tax dollars spent on gruesome surgeries trying to make boys look like girls or girls look like boys. We have seen federal regulations aim to shut down successful, proven industries, and federal subsidies aim to boost inefficient, unproven replacements. We have seen federal agents collude with media giants to hide information from the public to influence elections.  We have seen levels of federally encouraged voter fraud that — in a 50-50 nation — most definitely does indeed change those election results.

So today, as we watch a new leadership prepare to assume control of Congress, as we debate what on earth we should do about everything that went wrong in the elections of 2020 and 2022, and as we try to determine how to deal with the ever-present threat to the economy, society, and security of our nation constituted by the current occupants of the executive branch… we need to look to the Constitution, and remember to weight its two aspects correctly.

If we ever have to choose between the format and the contract, we must remember: our Founding generation didn’t put their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor in jeopardy, in a devastating, eight-year war, in order to ensure that congressmen were at least 25 years old.

Our Founding Fathers risked — and gave — their lives to deliver us a tiny, severely limited government: too small to rule us, too honest to rob us, too weak to tyrannize us.  As active citizens, our purpose in politics, from voting to opining to running, must be to return these United States to that noble legacy.

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.

Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.

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