John Adams in a 1798 address to the Massachusetts Militia* observed that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other…”
The implication of this observation is that the Constitution relies upon a particular moral context for its objectives to be achieved. The framers, however, following the suggestion of Edmund Randolph**, chose not to explicitly declare this moral underpinning. An unfortunate choice for a document that was to be the fundamental law of the Republic.
A fundamental law is one on which all other laws are based and one which, thereby, limits all derivative laws. A fundamental law is singular and makes imperative a single moral principle. The multiple fuzzy objectives which serve as the fundamental in the Constitution result in contradictions that are the playground and support of politicians and bureaucrats.
John Adams certainly had some inkling that there was a problem with the Constitution. Somehow, I can’t see him saying, “My Will was made only to be executed by a moral and religious executor. It is wholly inadequate to the execution by any other.” Viewed in this light, John Adams’s comment hardly seems to be a strong vote of confidence in the Constitution.
So, what was the moral underpinning which the framers readily agreed to omit? The answer, of course, lies in the Declaration of Independence.
The drafters of that document, eleven years before in 1776, boldly committed to securing individual rights as the proper purpose of government and no other. Such concise precision, easily honed in the early days when success seemed remote, was dulled by war.
Nevertheless the idea of men having individual rights was firmly anchored in the mind of those fighting the war and their families at home and, omitted or not, their rights, in their view, were to be secured by their government.
But what was the fundamental moral principle that was to give security to their rights? How should men in a rights respecting society behave towards each other?
Each knew his rights were violated when his property was damaged or stolen, or his body was harmed or killed, or if he, innocent, was forced to act against his will. Each knew at some level that: No one should initiate force against another. This was the fundamental moral principle each individual lived by. Even those who violated it claimed to be acting by it or, guilty, recognized their own wrongdoing.
The corresponding fundamental law was then: No one may initiate force against another under penalty of law. It had been the fundamental law of the colonies regarding disputes between individuals but not between individual and State or individual and Church. Both State and Church had compelled citizens in certain aspects of life: in particular with regard to taxes and tithes.
It is this fundamental law that was evaded by the framers of the Constitution. To have explicitly identified it in the document would have forbidden any agent of the government from initiating any force against any citizen for any reason.
Explicit identification would have voided, for instance, coercive federal taxation: a major reason for the new Constitution, a power not included in the prior Articles of Confederation.
John Adams may or may not have had this in mind when he made his speech. Yet if such a moral principle and its corresponding fundamental law is placed at the beginning of the Constitution it is clearly seen to frame and limit everything that follows. For instance, the power to lay taxes becomes the authorization to recommend taxes and the authorization to collect voluntary taxes. The power to coin money and regulate the value thereof becomes the authorization to coin only good money untainted by debasement. And so on.
Absent such a clear statement of the fundamental law no such limitations exist, and the Constitution becomes a hollow defense against a government of corrupt and malicious men as John Adams apparently recognized.