The following is adapted from a speech delivered on the Hillsdale College campus on September 20, 2010.
The modern presidency has drifted far from the great strength and illumination of its source: the Constitution as given life by the Declaration of Independence, the greatest political document ever written. The Constitution—terse, sober, and specific—does not, except by implication, address the president’s demeanor. But this we can read in the best qualities of the founding generation, which we would do well to imitate. In the Capitol Rotunda are heroic paintings of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the victory at Saratoga, the victory at Yorktown, and—something seldom seen in history—a general, the leader of an armed rebellion, resigning his commission and surrendering his army to a new democracy. Upon hearing from Benjamin West that George Washington, having won the war and been urged by some to use the army to make himself king, would instead return to his farm, King George III said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” He did, and he was.
To aspire to such virtue and self-restraint would in a sense be difficult, but in another sense it should be easy—difficult because it would be demanding and ideal, and easy because it is the right thing to do and the rewards are immediately self-evident.
A president who slights the Constitution is like a rider who hates his horse: he will be thrown, and the nation along with him. The president solemnly swears to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. He does not solemnly swear to ignore, overlook, supplement, or reinterpret it. Other than in a crisis of existence, such as the Civil War, amendment should be the sole means of circumventing the Constitution. For if a president joins the powers of his office to his own willful interpretation, he steps away from a government of laws and toward a government of men.
Is the Constitution a fluctuating and inconstant document, a collection of suggestions whose purpose is to stimulate debate in a future to which the Founders were necessarily blind? Progressives tell us that even the Framers themselves could not reach agreement in its regard. But they did agree upon it. And they wrote it down. And they signed it. And they lived by it. Its words are unchanging and unchangeable except, again, by amendment. There is no allowance for a president to override it according to his supposed superior conception. Why is this good? It is good because the sun will burn out, the Ohio River will flow backwards, and the cow will jump over the moon 10,000 times before any modern president’s conception is superior to that of the Founders of this nation.
Would it be such a great surprise that a good part of the political strife of our times is because one president after another, rather than keeping faith with it, argues with the document he is supposed to live by? This discontent will only be calmed by returning the presidency to the nation’s first principles. The Constitution and the Declaration should be on a president’s mind all the time, as the prism through which the light of all question of governance passes. Though we have—sometimes gradually, sometimes radically—moved away from this, we can move back to it. And who better than the president to restore this wholesome devotion to limited government?