On this date in 1787, 39 men signed the U.S. Constitution.
They would undoubtedly be surprised at how well their efforts worked out. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of voters today believe the United States is a great nation. But, at the same time, most Americans also believe the nation has a lot of work to do before we can live up to the founding ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance. Fortunately, most expect us to keep making progress.
One significant reason for such confidence is the strong foundation of the U.S. Constitution. Seventy percent (70%) of voters are happy with the system of checks and balances established on that day, even though (or perhaps because) it prevents the government from acting quickly to address national concerns. In fact, voters would like it if the Supreme Court Justices paid more attention to the literal words of the Constitution when making decisions.
The Constitution was drafted to build upon the noble ideals articulated in our nation’s founding document–the Declaration of Independence. That document eloquently expressed a commitment to freedom sometimes defined as the American Creed: Every American should have the right to live their own life as they see fit, so long as they respect the rights of others to do the same. Ninety-three percent (93%) of Americans still support that ideal today.
Unfortunately, just 32% believe the federal government respects the right of every American to live their own life as they see fit. That’s especially stunning because the Declaration of Independence stated that the very purpose of government is to protect our unalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sadly, but realistically, only 33% today believe the nation today provides liberty and justice for all.
On the brighter side, the hope and expectation of the new nation was that formal governments would be just one of many organizations governing society. Voters clearly realize not every problem needs a federal solution (even if their politicians do not). Eighty-nine percent (89%) nationwide believe that volunteering for community activities has a bigger positive impact than engaging in political campaigns.
In fact, 71% of voters recognize that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have had a bigger impact on the world we live in than the combined efforts of the 8 U.S. presidents since Apple and Microsoft were founded.
Still, to make a society function properly, there is some natural tension between promoting individual freedom and protecting an orderly society. Fifty-four percent (54%) of voters believe it is more important for government to protect individual freedom while 46% want the emphasis on protecting an orderly society. The balancing act is complicated because 68% of voters want the government to err on the side of using too little power rather than too much.
In today’s world, 38% believe the Supreme Court has too much power. The biggest public concern lies with appointed officials in government agencies. Fifty-eight percent (58%) believe they have too much power.
Perhaps the reason that the Constitution has survived is that it was designed with pragmatism in mind rather than to serve a Utopian dream. While the world has changed dramatically over the past 231 years, the foundational challenges of governing a society remain unchanged. As James Madison wrote long ago, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary… In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
Happy Constitution Day. After 231 years, it’s still an amazing work in progress.