Our Opinion: At age 230, Constitution faces stress test


On this day 230 years ago, the U.S. Constitution, the document defining the system by which the people of the recently formed United States of America chose to govern themselves — went into legal force. The Constitution's genius cannot be credited to any one individual, although James Madison penned much of its text, but rather is the intellectual product of men educated in the classics and the enlightened philosophy of the 18th century, wherein human reason stood as the ultimate authority.

That the Constitution has survived the turmoils of the past two centuries, even weathering a brutal civil war that almost destroyed the country, is due to several factors, including an elasticity that has enabled it to remain relevant despite the many cultural and societal changes America has undergone. The greatest source of its enduring strength, however, is the way the Founding Fathers crafted a governmental structure designed specifically to counter the basic human urge for leaders to arrogate power unto themselves. They did this by employing the principle of separation of powers; in the Constitution's case, three separate but co-equal branches of government, each acting as a check and balance upon the other. Realizing that there needed to be a single chief executive to lead the country and enforce its laws, they undertook to carefully limit his (or her, although in 1789 such a prospect was unthinkable) power lest he succumb to the temptation of aggrandizing it to become an absolute ruler. As a restraint on that urge, the executive branch was offset by the legislative (Congress) — a bicameral representative entity to which certain critical tasks were assigned, such as the crafting of laws and the authority to declare war. The judicial branch's mandate was to interpret the law. On paper as well as in practice, this system of harnessing the lesser angels of human nature has functioned admirably — until now.

The American body politic has never faced a crisis such as the present one: A president who, despite taking an oath of office in which he swore to preserve, protect and defend the very document whose enactment we celebrate today, has repeatedly violated its text and spirit, from imposing a thinly disguised ban on Muslims entering the country to declaring a national emergency in the absence of one. For the first time in our history, the sacred institutions that Americans have always taken for granted to protect them from the excesses of government face the ultimate stress test.

Compounding this problem is a Republican Congress that has failed utterly to serve as the check-and-balance as envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. Until Democrats regained the House in January, only the third branch, the judiciary, had been a check against a rogue chief executive. The press, the fourth estate, whose critical role was acknowledged by our Founders, has done its part as a check against the executive branch and a subservient legislative branch by exposing the behavior of both.

On this day we should be grateful to those who labored through the hot days of a Philadelphia summer to bequeath upon us their precious gift for the ages. We must also do whatever we can to assure their gift to generations of Americans survives this perilous time.



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