Portal:Liberty and Constitution

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Liberty and Constitution

America became a federal republic in 1789 when the Constitution was ratified.


Growing up in America, we were taught that America is a 'democracy'. 'The majority rules' was a referee we turned to on the playground and much of daily life, but we knew instinctively that majority rule had it's limitations, that the majority could not require one to submit to something unfair--that there was a higher authority - though 'rule of law' would have been a foreign and abstract concept on the playground. We also knew instinctively that the higher authority was based in fundamental 'inalienable rights'--though that was another concept a bit abstract for our playground minds.

America is democratic - a good thing. Government needs the input of the people and must be answerable to them. To the extent that it turns away from that it becomes autocratic. But whether or not we are or should be, first and foremost, a democracy bears discussion. CW sees the US as a constitutional republic that enjoys a high degree of political and economic freedom which includes democratic input.

After growing up revering democracy, a rather startling realization is that a society can have liberty without a democratic process. English/American liberty did not emerge from democracy. It was the other way around. In England it was 200 years after Magna Carta that an electoral system was introduced at the national level, and then it was a very limited franchise of well propertied males. It was another 500 years before the enfranchisement of males over 21 and the partial enfranchisement of women over 30. But the tardy development of formal democratic input did not impede the recognition of fundamental rights and the development of personal liberty guaranteed by rule of law. Those were established, were continually enlarged and became Constitutional fabric long before the expansion of democracy to 'the people'. England produced Magna Carta and its several revisions as well as the 1628 Petition of Right and the 1689 Bill of Rights with no input from a general electorate. The democratic process was better established in America than in England in 1689 (citation needed). When Magna Carta laid the foundation for rule of law England had no sense of 'the people' as an electorate. Such developments have done more to establish personal liberty than elections. So, rule of law can exist without democracy, but democracy without rule of law becomes tyranny. We see clearly, as this is being written in November 2014, that a majority established by democratic election can change suddenly. The current majority is seldom more than a few percent of the vote away from becoming the minority. When that happens, can fundamental rights of yesterday's majority be taken from them by the new majority? If the answer is yes, then rule of law is absent and what is left is tyranny of the majority. This points to the necessity of a constitution of liberty for liberty to exist. It puts an emphasis on rule of law. The founders of the US recognized that democracy's role was subservient to law and liberty, but also that democracy played an important role which they were careful to spell out and distribute in a way that prevented it from becoming tyranny.

The US is a constitutional, federal republic governed by officials that are democratically elected, which makes a democratic process essential. America was not the first constitutional republic, but it was quite new in important ways. Like England its rule of law was spelled out in constitutional form. To this, the United States added sovereignty of its member states who ceded only necessary powers to the federation. (It was a federal nation entered into voluntarily by a group of existing sovereign states. The United States would not have been formed if its founding document, The Constitution, had not recognized individual State sovereignty and left to the states all powers not specified in the Constitution as granted by the states to the federal government.) They laid out a very careful separation of those powers between the several branches of federal government to guard against abuses that would follow if concentration of power were allowed. The Americans of the time drew on examples that came before and on a variety of liberal thought that had existed in England, Europe and in America. It drew on the English examples of constitutional monarchy, the English Constitution, and Common Law and added the lessons of the colonial American experience. It drew heavily on the fact that the individual states would not agree to federalism unless they retained a high degree of sovereignty. Indeed, there was a prolonged debate carried out in the newspapers of the time between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists about the desirability of the states to cede any powers.

America was in a unique position - having an unusual collection of very agile and educated intellects (Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jay, Madison, Otis, Paine, Washington and others), a history of previous examples to inform them, the recent history of events in America and England, and a blank (well, almost blank) page to write on. Perfection can't be achieved in such a complex endeavor involving so many interests, but it was the most perfect such union ever created - by whatever measure you wish to pick.

Articles for this category

Candidate topics for articles:

  • the roles of democracy, constitution, and rule of law in ensuring liberty.
  • America's democratic republic and why it was set up as it is.
  • the transition from independence to having a ratified constitution.
  • the Articles of Confederation
  • the Constitution of the United States
  • The Federalist Papers
  • The Anti-Federalist Papers

There is some overlap between this and other categories, such as American Independence.

Articles about the time period from 1763, when England turned its attention to America in unwelcome ways, and through the winning of independence, belong in the category of American Independence.
Articles about the transition from independence to the Articles of Confederation to a ratified Constitution of the United States should be assigned to this category. For example: articles about such items as the Federalist Papers (and Anti-Federalist Papers) belong here.

What makes the subjects of this category worth writing about is that America has been so successful for so long - due in large part to the work of those who wrote and ratified our Constitution. In today's environment of deep political divisions, it may help to remind ourselves of our beginnings and the problems and issues that our founders struggled with. They were not entirely different than the problems and issues we deal with today.

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