Special Feature

Happy Birthday to the United States!
July 2, 2019
Special Feature
Happy Birthday to the United States!
Author BYU Studies Staff

The United States, declaring its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, began its government with the Continental Congress and then the Articles of Confederation, which failed to provide a workable arrangement. A new constitution was drafted in 1787, ratified in 1788, and implemented in 1789. Today we honor the Constitution with a look at several articles that have appeared over the years in BYU Studies. These articles point out how the Constitution is based in principles that have assisted the growth of the Church and have influenced governments around the world.

"What is the Proper Role of the Latter-day Saint with Respect to the Constitution?" John T. Bernhard, Quinn G. McKay, Richard B. Wirthlin, Garth L. Mangum, Mark W. Cannon, Richard L. Bushman, BYU Studies 4, no. 2
What should be the attitude of Latter-day Saints toward the Constitution in 1962? Bernhard suggests two possibilities. One can insist that the Constitution must be interpreted exactly as it was interpreted in 1789 (though most Latter-day Saints who take this view seem more enamored with the Social Darwinist interpretations of 1889)and refuse to face any social problem which was not existent and being faced in George Washington's day. One who does so can expect to contribute no more than amusement and mild exasperation to his age. On the other hand, one may choose to face the problems of his time and help in the search for a solution which is compatible with the just and holy principles of the individual liberty, human dignity, and freedom of conscience.

"The Constitution and the Great Fundamentals," Martin B. Hickman, BYU Studies 13, no. 3
The assertion that the Constitution of the United States is an inspired document made so frequently by Mormon writers and speakers is rarely probed for its full meaning; generally, they are content to deal with the question rhetorically rather than analytically. The most important exception to this rule, at least among Church leaders, was J. Reuben Clark, Jr. President Clark is set apart from most Mormon commentators on the Constitution by three distinctive characteristics. The first is the eloquence of his exposition and defense of the Constitution as a political document. As has been said elsewhere, what sets him apart from other Mormon commentators on the Constitution is not primarily his views but "the felicity with which he expressed them, the intensity with which he held them and the persistence with which he repeated them." Secondly, President Clark's writings, lectures, and sermons on the Constitution contain, when taken as a whole, a careful, precise, and full statement of the historical, philosophical, and scriptural basis of his convictions. Lastly, President Clark brought to his consideration of the American Constitution a deep sense of history. In his view, "the Constitution was born, not only of the wisdom and experience of the generation that wrought it, but also out of the wisdom of the long generations that had gone before and which had been transmitted to them through tradition and the pages of history."

"The Constitution as Covenant," Lynn D. Wardle, BYU Studies 27, no. 3
The Constitution of the United States is the legacy of "a peculiar moment in history when all knowledge coincided, when classical antiquity, Christian theology, English empiricism, and European rationalism could all be linked." And covenant was the linking concept. The religious idea of covenant was particularly and profoundly important in the evolution and inspiration of the American Constitution, for the political idea of, and the political concepts embodied in, the Constitution can be traced in "an unbroken line of descent" to the seventeenth-century covenant theology. In this essay, I will review the origins of the Constitution in covenant theology.

"Constitutional Interpretation and the American Tradition of Individual Rights," Thomas B. McAffee, BYU Studies 27, no. 3
Thomas B. McAffee says in this article: "In this essay, I will offer grounds for doubting the correctness of the first of these views. As to the second, it would require a separate article to fully defend the traditional assumptions that the Constitution binds us until it is amended and that we are bound by the ascertainable meaning of the document where it is clear from text and context. These were the premises of Marbury vs. Madison, and I consider them to be woven into the fabric of our law. At a more practical level, the view that we are not bound by the clear meaning of the text would not be sustained by the American public for a month if the Supreme Court were to announce it as the basis for a "constitutional" judgment. And advocates of such positions would have a difficult time persuading presidents and legislators that they should consider themselves bound by Supreme Court decisions if the Court viewed itself as empowered to amend clear text by ascribing a meaning of its own. If courts are bound by clear text, as most have supposed, it is difficult to see why they should not be equally bound by context fully capable of clarifying the meaning of text."

"Mormonism, Philosophical Liberalism, and the Constitution," Richard C. Mangrum, BYU Studies 27, no. 3
Why should a Mormon celebrate the bicentennial of a secular constitution? Wouldn't any such reverence contradict the injunction against idolatry? Doesn't the first commandment's demand that we give our complete fidelity to God rule out our allegiance to any other nomos? What about our constitutional history as a persecuted religious minority? The Constitution provided no solace when vigilantes expelled the Saints from Missouri and Nauvoo in the 1830s and 1840s. Similarly, constitutional pleas went unheeded when the nineteenth-century Mormons in the Great Basin were disfranchised, denied naturalization, refused statehood, prevented from serving on the bench or on juries, and refused governmental appointments to high political offices despite their majoritarian status. Polygamy, a practice Mormons in the nineteenth century associated with exaltation but others found abhorrent, received no constitutional protection. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected beliefs, not practices. More recently, the Constitution has been interpreted as protecting the practice of abortion despite belief by many of its immorality. Why then Mormon hoopla over what could be characterized as political degeneracy?

"Bicentennial Reflections on the Media and the First Amendment," Bruce C. Hafen, BYU Studies 27, no. 3
The general theory underlying the First Amendment to the Constitution draws on the same wellsprings of thought that give rise to the central place of free agency in the restored gospel. I consider it no accident that the very first of these amendments boldly guaranteed religious freedom and free expression. The First Amendment is "first" for reasons so important as to be at the very heart of why I believe the Constitution was inspired of God. Among the most glorious of all ideas is the truth that each personality is unique, free, and eternal. Thus the Doctrine and Covenants declares that "human law . . . should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul."

"The Summer of 1787: Getting a Constitution," J. D. Williams, BYU Studies 27, no. 3
It is not at all certain that complex historical events really have beginnings, but it is absolutely certain that all essays must. And so we begin with my favorite living Frenchman, Jean-Francois Revel, commenting on the revolution in eighteenth-century America: "That revolution was, in any case, the only revolution ever to keep more promises than it broke." What made that possible in America was the Constitution of the United States, written eleven years after the Declaration of Independence and six years after our defeat of the British at Yorktown. On 17 September 1987, that document was two hundred years old; and it is to that birthday—and to all of us—that this essay is fondly dedicated. My intent here is threefold: to recall how one American government (the Articles of Confederation) was overthrown; to tell the story of the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787; and to assess the truly critical features of the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution.