The Declaration and the Constitution | Book Review


In a memorandum to himself, Abraham Lincoln used Proverbs 25:11 to describe the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. That proverb says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” The Declaration is the “apples of gold,” while the Constitution is the “pictures of silver.” The latter serves as the carrier for the former.

It is sometimes thought that the Declaration and Constitution exist in tension with one another, but I think Lincoln’s insight is correct. The Declaration articulates the moral principles that should guide the people in their political activities, while the Constitution operationalizes them. The Constitution is not the only way to do this, of course. Before it there were the Articles of Confederation, after all. But it is nonetheless a way of securing the “unalienable rights” that the Declaration declared was the reason “Governments are instituted among Men.”

Together, then, the Declaration and Constitution outline the system of what Roger Pilon calls “ordered liberty” in his Preface to the Cato Institute’s booklet containing the two documents. Cato is a leading libertarian or classical liberal think tank in Washington DC. Against the notion that the documents are merely relics of their time, now long past, and thus urgently in need of revision, Pilon writes:

The Declaration and the Constitution, together, address mankind’s most basic political questions. Resting on a firm moral foundation, they articulate the first principles of political organization. Thus, they were meant to serve not simply the 18th century but generations to come, which would face those same basic questions, whatever their particular circumstances, whatever their state of material progress. Because the principles the Founders articulated transcend both time and technology, they will serve us well as we move through the 21st century, if only we understand them correctly and apply them well.

As an American citizen, I try to familiarize myself with these founding documents every year, reading the Declaration on Independence Day (July 4) and the Constitution on Constitution Day (September 17). I encourage you to do the same.

Book Reviewed
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America, with a Preface by Roger Pilon (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2003).

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