Commemorating Constitution While at War

Every man who loves peace, every man who loves his country, every man who loves liberty, ought to have it ever before his eyes, that he may cherish in his heart a due attachment to the Union of America, and be able to set a due value on the means of preserving it.

— James Madison, The Federalist, No. 41

The U.S. Constitution became effective on “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.” In this time of war and debate about national security and individual liberty, we would do well to refresh our recollection with its origin, content and purposes.

A great debate preceded the ratification of the Constitution. There would have been no debate or ratification, however, without first winning an awful war.

A band of American patriots, always outnumbered and out-gunned, sometimes starving, shoeless and freezing, fought eight cruel years to victory against the mightiest military force in the world. Less than half the population actively supported the cause, with 20 to 30 percent remaining loyal to the Crown. The war grew increasingly unpopular as Revolutionary Army deaths rose to 25,000. That’s 25,000 dead from a total population of 2,500,000 in 1776. Even so, the mighty Red Coats raised the white flag of surrender to the unrelenting red-blooded Americans at Yorktown.

Patriots who had counted the cost mutually pledged to each other their “Lives … Fortunes and … sacred Honor.” Victors in war became champions of the constitutional debate.

Upon approval of the Constitution by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, George Washington, President of the Convention, wrote of the difficulty of drawing a precise line between security for all and individual liberty:

It is obviously impracticable, in the federal government of these States, to secure all rights of independent sovereignty to each, and yet provide for the interest and safety of all. Individuals entering into society must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest. The magnitude of the sacrifice must depend as well on situation and circumstance, as on the object to be obtained. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved, and on the present occasion this difficulty was increased by a difference among the several states as to their situation, extent, habits and particular interests.

Persevering in the current war depends for many on weekly polling numbers and counting casualties and dollars. The value of some numbers is beyond calculation:

  • 9-11
  • American 11
  • United 175
  • American 77
  • United 93
  • 2,973 massacred Americans
  • 3,000 American military who’ve sacrificed all of their liberty to guard our security

Polling results released September 7 indicate that women, especially southern women, have become more disillusioned with the war. Maybe we need to get the steel back in our magnolias. Like it or not, we have a war started by an enemy absolutely committed to destroying us.

To cease fighting won’t make it cease and won’t leave us with anything to like. Al Qaeda and the Taliban aren’t known for beneficent policies on women’s rights, education, health care, the environment and growing an economy. Let alone the first of all rights, religious liberty.

It’s as if the more unpopular the war becomes, the more unnecessary it will be. We seem to have forgotten that war brings casualties and victory requires sacrifice and perseverance. They rarely end in 100 hours. Wars are costly to win but costlier to lose.

John Stuart Mill reminds us that there are things worse than war:

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.

Part of our problem is that we’ve dumbed-down the meaning of war. We declare a “war on poverty” and a “war on drugs. We even have a “war on obesity.” “Warring” over causes desensitizes us to the real thing.

Where we draw the line between national security and individual liberty draws us back to the Constitution. Is the Constitution concerned first and foremost with the individual?

The Preamble sets forth the Constitution’s great purposes and identifies its beneficiaries.

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It is first:

  • We—not me
  • Union—not separate
  • Common—not private
  • General—not exclusive
  • Ourselves—not myself

We formed this union to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, not for our enemies. Without strong national security, those committed to our destruction will end our liberties.

Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said, “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” What he did write in Poor Richard’s Almanac does not elevate individual liberty above national security: “Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.”

Preserving individual liberties is important. And no one suggests that a strong national security calls for anything comparable to the deprivations imposed on Japanese-American citizens during WW II.

But as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson presciently warned in his dissenting opinion in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949): “The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

In deciding where we should draw the line between individual liberty and national security, we would do well to consider how much liberty exists in a coffin, under a million tons of rubble or in an airliner plunging into the ground.

A band of patriots aboard United 93 became the citizen soldiers of 9-11. Faced with loss of their ultimate liberty, they did something very American. They voted and voiced as one, “Let’s roll.” They willfully gave their last precious minutes of liberty fighting to survive and dying to keep their fellow citizens secure.

With one voice our military says, “Not on our watch.” They will not lose this war. We at home will lose it if statistics count more than stakes. We were one on 9-11. If We the People do not unite again as the Home of the Brave, we will not remain the Land of the Free.