Constitution Day 2007: Two Hundred Twenty Years of American Constitutionalism

By September 17, 2007

FIRE’s staff occupies an office across Sixth Street from Independence Hall where, two hundred twenty years ago today, the American Constitutional Convention adjourned. To secure liberty, the Framers had agreed to structural arrangements in the Constitution including checks and balances, separation of powers, and federalism. Their ideas came from a long and storied Western tradition with high points in four cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London. To that esteemed list was now added a fifth: Philadelphia.

The American contribution to freedom was constitutionalism, the idea of, in Samuel Adams’s words, a “fixed constitution.” Without it, capricious leaders, like those in Parliament, could determine American lives from afar, without their consent and without limit. Liberty was defined as freedom from arbitrary rule. Enshrining such power in written form circumscribed the power of government officials and state actors and eliminated arbitrary decision making by requiring limited, defined, and legitimate methods through which the government could act.

Whatever the new Constitution’s strengths, even the Federalists admitted that there were no guarantees for individual rights. Despite Alexander Hamilton’s assurances that the structural arrangement was itself a bill of rights, the Framers parted ways in agreement on the Constitution with the understanding that they would later write and ratify what James Madison called a “parchment barrier” against tyranny in the form of the Bill of Rights. The first item in that bill of rights was an unequivocal promise of five freedoms or rights: religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

At risk of growing redundant, we again point out to FIRE readers that the abovementioned rights and protections are violated on a perpetual basis on college campuses. The vast majority of America’s colleges and universities ignore these fundamental rights in speech codes meticulously catalogued on FIRE’s Spotlight. Barely a day passes that FIRE does not receive a case submission of yet another student rights violation at an American educational institution—despite higher education institutions being the most rhetorically committed to free expression and free inquiry.

So, on this day, as students across America are taught about the great freedoms they have inherited, raise your glass toward Philadelphia in celebration of the freedoms you enjoy and remember that FIRE is here at the birthplace of American liberty, making sure our country’s college students will enjoy those freedoms into the future.