It is not then a stretch to see the logic of the Declaration – that it goes from that recognition of a transcendent grounding for the claim to human rights to the understanding that in order to be legitimate – lawful in the larger sense, or just – government must be based upon a principle that respects the existence of those basic rights – which is the principle of ‘consent.’ Thus, we now live day-to-day in the stream of these ideas and the consequences of self-government.
From Declaration to Constitution
July 4th is the celebration of the Declaration made official in 1776, the birth of the nation. The Constitution would be adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by conventions in eleven states. It went into effect on March 4, 1789 – some 13 years after the laying of the foundation stated in the Declaration.
There is not enough space in this column to cover the Constitution. In light of the celebration of our Independence as a nation, here, I am more interested in the connection between the two founding documents.
The Supreme Court in Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v. Ellis, 165 U.S. 150 (1897) said:
“‘When we consider the nature and the theory of our institutions of government, the principles upon which they are supposed to rest, and review the history of their development, we are constrained to conclude that they do not mean to leave room for the play and action of purely personal and arbitrary power.
The first official action of this nation declared the foundation of government in these words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
While such declaration of principles may not have the force of organic law, or be made the basis of judicial decision as to the limits of right and duty, and while in all cases reference must be had to the organic law of the nation for such limits, yet the latter is but the body and the letter of which the former is the thought and the spirit, and it is always safe to read the letter of the Constitution in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. No duty rests more imperatively upon the courts than the enforcement of those constitutional provisions intended to secure that equality of rights which is the foundation of free government.”
This is an affirmation that the Constitution carries out the principles averred in the Declaration. In other words, while the Declaration is the basis for reading the Constitution – our Founders have given us the spirit and the letter of the law.
Patrick Henry put it this way: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
Chaplains and Peace Officers
St. Paul, who before his career as a Christian theologian led a warrant squad picking up and jailing those who professed their Christian faith (cf. Acts 8:3, 9:1-2, 22:3-5, 26:9-11), wrote this after his change of heart:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity to indulge the sinful nature, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)
When I was a peace officer I had and still have no desire to live in a police state. I wanted to serve those who sought justice – the victims of crimes, and protect, as much as humanly possible, people from becoming victims of crime. As tedious as it could be, I am glad that I had to ‘cross the t’s and dot the i’s’ in search and arrest warrants (see Patrick Henry quote above.) It was a reminder that the maxim ‘might makes right’ is not the foundation of our great republic.
Again, from Patrick Henry: “That religion, or duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”