Last night I prepped a speech I was asked to present to a Masonic lodge. I wanted to speak about the important principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the framers who conceived of such ideas. It wasn’t lost on me that I would be addressing an organization founded on ideas and principles.
In 1969, I was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps. I swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. “So help me God,” I said. It was a notice of appointment of executive authority given to me, because of the “special trust and confidence” President Nixon had regarding my patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities.
At the time, I had no thought of protecting the Constitution. I just wanted to be a Marine and wear the dress blues so I could impress Amia Davia, who I’d had a crush on since high school.
Although the soldiers and their officers swear an oath to the Constitution, they hardly fight for its defense. They fight for each other.
My understanding of the Constitution would evolve and eventually and I would see its perfection.
Although James Madison was one individual key to its development, it was a communal effort in which Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson played roles.
The Declaration came first and was foundational to the Constitution, which was prompted by what happened in the colonies during the previous 16 years.
It was a fortuitous time, as the framers who’d become the statesmen were influenced by the Age of Reason philosophers John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rosseau. Those men gave the framers some radical ideas, such as their shared belief in the dignity of man.
All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The framers believed it was the right of a free people to rid themselves of an oppressive government. So, they did exactly that.
Then, George Washington entered the picture and the soldier prosecuted the vision of the statesmen that had been molded by the philosophers.
The general was an average tactician. In 1776 and 1777, Washington was on the ropes, and he needed a victory, and on Christmas night of ’76, he crossed the Delaware and went to Trenton.
Washington had something to believe: this insane idea of freedom that the Declaration spoke of. Miraculously, he was able to instill this abstract idea to his soldiers. Then Paine entered the scene and gave this insanity a rationale.
If a novelist wrote that story, no one would believe it.
It would take seven years before the Treaty of Paris ended the war and four years of uncertainty before the Constitution was ratified. No greater assembly of genius, wisdom, accomplishment and experience has ever gathered to create a document. Presiding over the gathering, Washington said, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.” He was talking about the Constitution.
Here’s what they did, and they did it not just for their generation, but for all of us, and all the generations of Americans in between, as well as generations yet to be born: They created a republic. They fashioned a government of limited functions and powers.
They crafted an ingenious separation of powers, a system of federalism in which power went to the states. They designed three distinct branches of federal government, each with its own prescribed powers and limitations: executive, legislative, judicial. They added the Bill of Rights and guaranteed basic freedoms: speech, press, assembly and the right to bear arms.
As Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked, “Mr. Franklin, what form of government have you given us?”
His reply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”