At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, John Dickinson, one of our greatest Founding Fathers, and one of the least known, was troubled by the bickering and lack of progress by his fellow delegates on so propitious an occasion, that of crafting a new and unique form of government. Back in his boarding room that night, Dickinson drafted a speech he intended to give the following day. For reasons that remain unexplained to this day, Dickinson never delivered the speech, but he saved his notes and several months later, while the ratification battles over the proposed new constitution were in full swing, he published this admonition in one of a series of newspaper letters penned by “Fabius.” In this letter, Dickinson admonished his fellow delegates that they are not forming plans “for a day, month, year or age, but for an eternity.”
Had the Convention delegates received Dickinson’s speech that day in Philadelphia, they would have fully understood his charge. They had studied the republics of old, all of them; and they knew that none had survived long. Alexander Hamilton said it succinctly:
It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolution by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.
Would the American experiment succeed and endure? No one at the time could know for sure. Franklin summed the situation:
“I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
But the American Republic survives still, 228 years later, due in no small part to the foresight of the fifty-five men that met at Philadelphia. To what do we owe this permanency? As Thomas Jefferson put it,
Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people; they fix too for the people the principles of their political creed. [emphasis added]
Similarly, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, penned in May 1776, George Mason wrote:
That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles. [emphasis added]
The longevity of the U.S. Constitution is owing to the principles on which it was established. But which fundamental or fixed principles, exactly, do we find embedded there that can account for its distinction as “the longest operating written Constitution in the history of the world?”
Federalist Writer, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and President of the American Bible Society John Jay, proposed this connection:
that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government....
Rosalie J. Slater, in her groundbreaking work: Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History identifies seven principles of America’s Christian History. They include the principles of Individuality, Self-Government, Christian Character, Conscience, Christian Form of Government, Local Self-Government and Political Union. Ms. Slater writes:
Our Founding Father generation was alert to detect the slightest infraction of their liberties, freedoms, rights. This was because they were knowledgeable on principles. This enabled them to stand fast despite every effort to insinuate legislation which would threaten their right of Christian self-government, their property of conscience, their initiative and enterprise. We, too, need to become so knowledgeable about the principles of our American Christian Constitution that we can once again restore its spirit and purpose in the preservation of our “Lives, Liberties and Estates.”
(1) The Principle of Individuality is found clearly in terms of the value of each citizen. Individual votes determine the passage of laws, overriding of vetos, confirmation of appointments and ratification of treaties. The creativity of individuals is to be protected by patents and copyrights, as is individual property from search and seizure. The testimony of two or more individuals is required for conviction of treason.
(2) The Principle of Self-Government is found in the very fabric of the document, as recognized by its chief architect:
It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genious (sic) of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom: to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government."
(3) The Principle of Local Self-Government is recognized in the Tenth Amendment through its reservation of all powers not delegated to the federal or state governments; they are to remain with the people for their use in local and self-government.
(4) The Principle of Christian Character is not to be found in the Constitution itself, but rather in the lives and decorum of the fifty-five men who drafted the document. A particularly poignant example of which is to be found in Dr. Franklin’s impassioned plea for prayer on 28 June in the midst of contentious proceedings.
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. ”Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments be Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.
It is no coincidence that the Constitution is subscribed on the “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord (Jesus Christ) one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven,” and that each President is given Sundays off when counting the ten days he has to take action on a presented bill.
(5) The Principle of Conscience can be found in the protections of conscience afforded by the First Amendment, as well as allowing for affirmation in place of solemn oath when taking office at the state or federal level. Although Article 6’s prohibition of a religious test for taking office would seem to run counter to the preceding principle (Christian Character), it actually protects the conscience of believers and unbelievers alike.
(6) The Principle of Christian Form of Government, according to Ms. Slater, includes the concept of representation and separation of powers, both of which are self-evident in the structure of the government the Constitution created.
(7) The Principle of Political Union is of course also inherent in the structure of the Constitution, beginning with the familiar declaration: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…” and also reinforced by Article 1’s and the Tenth Amendment’s acknowledgement of the concept of Federalism, or shared political power, a decidedly Biblical concept. Federalism comes from foedus, Latin for covenant:
The tribes of Israel shared a covenant that made them a nation. American federalism originated at least in part in the dissenting Protestants' familiarity with the Bible.
Beyond the seven Principles as described by Ms. Slater, there are a few more Biblical principles upon which the Constitution is based, and which therefore can account for its stability. These include, first and foremost, an acknowledgement of the fallen nature of man, which is accommodated by the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
The true value of the Constitution is to be found in these Biblical and Christian principles. Despite the onslaught by forces intent on tearing down the structure the Founders gave us so long ago, if we are to survive as an independent republic, a “frequent recurrence to fundamental principles” should be our common goal.