We were gifted the greatest of documents so many years ago when our Founding Fathers created the Constitution of the United States.
A mere 4,400 words long—7,600, including the amendments—and just four simple pages, it’s the oldest—and shortest—written constitution in the world.
And yet, nothing more important than the creation of those four pages has occurred in our history as a nation.
Our United States is a constitutional republic—characterized by a constitutionally limited government—with powers separated between three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.
The people elect representatives who make decisions on their behalf. Governmental power is limited to protect the individual—through laws that govern those who govern us.
This structure was created precisely because our Founding Fathers were acutely aware of the dangers inherent in a pure democracy. As John Adams famously noted, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
A democracy’s singular defining feature is rule by the majority—it is majority over man. A pure democracy is a dictatorship by the majority. In a democracy, “We the People” are viewed as a group. The entire purpose of a democratic constitution is to empower the majority of the people to rule.
A republic, by contrast, is a form of government in which political authority comes from the people. Powers are vested in the people and exercised through representatives chosen by the people. Republics are bound by charters, which limit the responsibilities and powers of the state.
In a republic, “We the People” are viewed as individuals. The purpose of a republican constitution is to secure the individual’s rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And these inalienable rights can’t be taken away by a majority-elected government. They are protected from the majority by the Bill of Rights.
A “right” always conveys an action or nonaction onto another. This simple fact is often overlooked and even more frequently misunderstood. It’s easy to think of a right as the freedom to act without restriction—our freedom of speech or freedom of religion. While this is partially true, a right to freedom still conveys a non-action on the part of others—which is precisely why rights can be taken away if we aren’t vigilant.
We, as individual citizens, have only negative rights placed on us by our Constitution. This must be so in order to protect our individual rights.
A positive right is the requirement to engage in an activity to secure another individual’s rights. Positive rights require an action on behalf of another individual. Public health care and education, along with a minimum or living wage, are all examples of positive rights.
A negative right is the requirement of abstention from an activity that violates another individual’s rights. A negative right is the requirement of a non-action. Negative rights stem from the only fundamental right—the right to life. All other rights spring from this most basic of rights.
The right to life conveys freedom for an individual to pursue actions that support, sustain, and enhance his life. It implies freedom from physical compulsion, coercion, or interference by others. From the right to life comes the right to property. And without property rights, no other rights are possible.
By definition, a man who produces products while others dispose of his product is actually a slave. Control over the benefits of his labor has been lost to another—the guarantee that if he earns it, he will keep it, has been lost.
This is precisely why our Constitution is often referred to as charter of negative rather than positive liberties.
Under our Constitution, every individual has the right to engage in activities to preserve and enhance his life—as long as that individual refrains from engaging in activities that prevent others from doing the same.
When every citizen is granted these same rights, then none are allowed to engage in any behavior that impairs the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of another. This is why we as individual citizens have only negative obligations placed on us by our Constitution. We are free to pursue goals; we are not guaranteed to attain them.
Our nation’s Electoral College is intrinsically tied to our status as a constitutional republic and the basic concept of negative rights.
The Electoral College was put in place to protect states’ rights along with those of the individuals residing in them. Our founders foresaw the growth and territorial expansion of the United States and, therefore, provided the Electoral College as the mechanism that kept power from remaining firmly entrenched in already populated places such as Boston and New York.
The Electoral College helps maintain our federal system of government, in which our national government’s power is balanced by states’ governmental power. Each state’s political autonomy to directly serve its own citizens is enhanced.
The electoral process also helps dictate that no single region contains the 270 electoral votes required to elect a president. It is also a reason why presidents often select a vice president from a different region than their own.
It’s in our willingness to live by our republican charter—the Constitution of the United States—that allows us to maintain our freedom. A Democracy, by contrast, is only as free as the majority’s understanding and application of the term “freedom.”
It’s said that Benjamin Franklin wept as he signed the Constitution. He was 81 years old and so infirm that he required assistance—and yet he came, and he signed.
And he wept.
Because he understood the moment given to him.
Upon leaving the Pennsylvania State House, Franklin was asked about the type of government just created. Franklin responded simply:
“A republic, madam. If you can keep it.”
And somehow, someway, we have kept it through all these years. That alone should be worth some tears of thankfulness, for it hasn’t come easy.
With great gifts come great responsibilities and sacrifices have been made by many in defense of this great nation.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, let us take stock of those many gifts given us by others.
On this day, originally created by President George Washington to give thanks for our new Constitution—and our new nation—these states become united.
Our United States.
Jeff Carlson is a CFA charterholder. He worked for 20 years as an analyst and portfolio manager in the high-yield bond market. He runs the website TheMarketsWork.com
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.