Eight hundred years and a few weeks ago, a group of rebellious barons forced King John of England to agree to a “Great Charter” limiting his royal power. This document—Magna Carta—is known today as a foundation of individual liberty and the rule of law. It is often cited as a major inspiration for the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Three months after it was written, Magna Carta was a dead letter. King John had revoked it, the barons had failed to enforce it, and England had descended into civil war. Decades of rebellion, political wrangling, and mistrust would ensue before Magna Carta was fully accepted as English law.
Proclaiming liberty and the rule of law is one thing; preserving them is another. That is what makes the achievement of the United States of America so special. To endure 225 years of change and conflict under the same system of government—never broken, and scarred only once by violence—is truly exceptional. America’s lasting tradition of limited, representative government is the main reason we enjoy so much freedom today, and it is a model for other democracies around the world.
In part, we have the Constitution to thank for America’s success. In the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), Chief Justice John Marshall praised “what we have deemed the greatest improvement on political institutions—a written constitution” and showed that the President, Congress, and the courts are all equally bound by the Constitution as “Supreme Law of the Land”. The idea that the entire government must obey a single legal document was a uniquely American innovation and a supremely successful one. So was the decision to divide power among the three branches of government and between national and state governments, preventing any one part from becoming too great a threat to liberty.
But the Constitution itself is only half the story. It begins with the words “We the People,” and the continuing commitment of the American people has preserved it for over two centuries. While Magna Carta became a mere tool in the power struggles of kings and nobles; the U.S. Constitution became the center of an enduring democratic tradition. Without the continued interest and involvement of ordinary citizens acting through democratic institutions, the Constitution and the liberties that it safeguards would mean very little. History shows that the Constitution can only be preserved by the will of the People who adopted it.
Consider the greatest crisis in the Constitution’s history: the U.S. Civil War. It is no exaggeration to say that the Civil War was fought in large part over questions of constitutional authority and constitutional meaning. Abraham Lincoln ran for president on a platform opposing the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which had twisted the text of the Constitution to deny black citizenship and create a national “right” to own slaves. After Lincoln was elected, the southern states seceded one by one, claiming that he would violate their “constitutional right” to promote slavery and that they were entitled to leave the Union rather than accept his election.
Lincoln called out the South’s move for what it was: a rejection of the democratic process and an attack on the Constitution’s authority as supreme law. The American people had elected Lincoln democratically, and he had taken an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He had a duty to preserve the Union and uphold the Constitution as written—not the wrong interpretations of it by the Supreme Court or the states. Congress and the Northern states supported Lincoln’s position. Lincoln famously described what happened next: “And the war came.”
In the end, it was the Civil War itself—and the courage and sacrifice of thousands of ordinary Americans—that repudiated Dred Scott, vindicated Lincoln’s position, and saved the Constitution. What is more, the Civil War led the American people to adopt the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which finally abolished slavery and set the nation on a course toward equality and civil rights. What began as a fight to preserve the Constitution’s democratic rule of law ended, one hundred and fifty years ago, as a resounding victory for liberty as well.
Of course, the history of government practice under the U.S. Constitution has been anything but perfect, and it remains so today. Nor is the Constitution itself perfect in its protection of liberty. But to stop there is to neglect the awesome accomplishment that is American democracy. The people of the United States have pioneered and—against the odds—maintained for over two centuries a system of government that answers to the people and upholds their rights. The U.S. Constitution stands today as proof to the world that a stable, limited, representative government is both possible and desirable. It is truly an exceptional achievement.
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Michael S. Paulsen & Luke Paulsen are the authors of The Constitution: An Introduction.