Acton Institute Powerblog

Coolidge and Reagan on the Constitution

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This afternoon I delivered the Constitution Day lecture at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids. The school did an excellent job promoting the event and I was thankful for an opportunity to speak about our founding documents and introduce Acton ideas and thought to law students. Much of my discussion centered upon Calvin Coolidge’s notion that there is a “finality” and rest within our founding principles. When we endeavor to move beyond the principles of our founding; we begin to move backwards not forward. It was Coolidge who said, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”

Today, we desperately need to recapture the truth that the whole purpose of our Bill of Rights and Constitution is to limit the federal government. As James Madison declared in Federalist #45, “Those powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. In my talk, I stressed the importance of staying faithful to the Constitutional text. My background is theology not constitutional law, but in seminary I was always reminded by my professor Ben Witherington, that “a proof-text without a context, is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” That is true of our founding documents, just as it is true of Scripture.

Our government exists to protect our natural rights. Coolidge, who was sandwiched between the progressive era and the New Dealers, told Americans something that is just as relevant now as it was then: “The pressing need of the present day is not to change our constitutional rights, but to observe our constitutional rights.” Coolidge and Ronald Reagan probably talked more about the U.S. Constitution than any other 20th century presidents. I concluded my remarks by quoting Ronald Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union Address where he talked about the exceptional nature of our Constitution:

I’ve read the constitutions of a number of countries, including the Soviet Union’s. Some are surprised to hear that they have a constitution, and it even supposedly grants a number of freedoms to its people. Many countries have written into their constitutions provisions for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Why is US Constitution so exceptional? The difference is so small that it almost escapes you, but it’s also so great it tells you the whole story in just three words: We the people. In those other constitutions, the Government tells the people of those countries what they’re allowed to do. In our Constitution, we the people tell the government what it can do, and it can do only those things listed in that document and no others. Virtually every other revolution in history has just exchanged one set of rules for another set of rules. Our revolution is the first to say the people are the masters & the government is their servant.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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