by Joseph M. Nunes, from the June 2022 Issue of The Compass
For decades, generations of Americans were raised with the idea of American exceptionalism. And, in truth, the United States of America is exceptional. Yes, there were flaws from the beginning and throughout its history, but it is the greatest nation on earth by any reasonable yardstick. This exceptionalism is rooted in the founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. Before taking a deeper look at these two documents, they should be put into the proper historical context so we can understand what makes them so great.
If you were to gather a group of men in America in 1756 (twenty years before the Declaration of Independence), the group would have consisted primarily of religious leaders. With national sovereignty being rooted across the Atlantic in England, communities looked to clerics for guidance and that guidance came largely from the Holy Bible.
If you were to gather a group of men in America in 1807 (twenty years after the Constitutional Convention), the group would have consisted largely of inventors and explorers. It was the era of discovery. The west was opening up to people who wanted to spread their wings into new, untamed lands in their pursuit of happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile, new technologies were multiplying the efforts of man in areas like farming, transportation, and communication in ways never imagined just decades earlier.
But the intervening years between the age of religious dominance and the age of discovery saw a rise of young men educated in law, politics, oratory, and statesmanship with a few elderly sages to provide a guiding hand. It was really a unique period that has not been replicated prior to or since. With respect to forming a government, this was a gathering of minds unlike any other in the history of the world.
Those founding documents would have looked very different if they were written in those proximate generations of our nation’s birthing. Men twenty years prior to that time lacked the education, experience, and interest to create an entirely new form of government unlike any seen on earth ever before. Men twenty years later had other pursuits to occupy their hearts and their resources.
So, what is it about these two documents that changed the world? What are they and what influence have they had?
The Declaration of Independence was not only a litany of grievances against England and King George III specifically, but, even more significantly, it was a vision statement. It advocated for complete independence from Great Britain stating that the colonies not only had a cause to seek the severance of all former ties but that they had a divine right, even an obligation, to stand up and take their equal place among the nations of the earth. This was certainly a bold vision. The idea of freedom was so essential that the authors invoked deity in various forms of address four separate times, including their trust and “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.”
This vision statement advocated for the equality of men, inalienable rights, consent of the governed, and for the right of the people to abolish governments that egregiously abuse their power. In 1776, these were startling and outlandish viewpoints that even many colonists did not fully support. But this declaration provided a set of principles that galvanized those who chose to risk lives, fortunes, and honor to see them achieved in a united cause to throw off tyranny in pursuit of individual freedom.
In truth, the Declaration was rhetoric—essential rhetoric—but it provided no guidance about forming a government. It provided no military strategy. It advocated for, but did not provide, rights to the population. It was a “Call to Action!” It heralded a new society in which liberty could abound and citizens could obtain the dreams they were willing to pursue.
It became a rallying cry to the world which still resonates in the hearts of men everywhere. For 250 years revolutions have begun, wars have been fought, and new nations have arisen in the name of liberty. The Declaration of Independence was the visionary seedling that grew into a forest of increasing freedom throughout the world.
On the other hand, the Constitution (outside of a very brief preamble) is practical, almost clinical, in succinctly defining the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and obligations of citizens and branches of government, both horizontally and vertically. In doing so, it intentionally created an inherent opposition between all these parties in order to prevent any single entity from exercising its own tyranny over the others. This system of checks and balances created a tenuous equilibrium unique to the United States, but now replicated throughout the world.
The Constitution remains America’s greatest export. Today, every nation on earth except three, has a form of constitutional government modeled at least in part after the United States Constitution. The three that don’t have a constitutional government (Israel, United Kingdom, and New Zealand), do have strong constitutional principles, but have not collected them into a single document (see Mark Tushnet, “Constitution,” in Michel Rosenfeld and Andras Sajo, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law (2012), 222).
In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah is best known for his Messianic prophecies, but he also had much to say about this day and age. In one verse, he teaches that “out of Zion shall go forth the law.” In scripture, Zion (or Sion) is almost always used to denote a place of refuge. Is there any place on earth that is a place of refuge more than the United States of America? People from all nations flock to this country in their pursuit of freedom. It is possible, even likely, that the Constitution of the United States is, at least in part, is a fulfillment of the ancient prophecy given by Isaiah more than 2,500 years earlier. (Isaiah 2:3.)
Two documents—written by men particularly educated and trained to be capable of such a task and perhaps in fulfillment of ancient scripture—still have the power to change the world today. We cannot turn our backs on the rhetoric that inspires all of us as we chase freedom. Nor can we reject the principles and practices of good government that puts first the rights and privileges of citizens. It is up to us to safeguard them for not only do we have rights and privileges; we have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to each other and to future generations.