The U.S. Constitution:
Why Should We Care? Do We Understand It?

by Mark W. Cannon

Scriptures and prophets identify the U.S. Constitution, signed 215 years ago today, as monumentally significant. It should be maintained not just to protect Americans but “all flesh”! (D.&C. 101:77) This impels each of us to sharpen our understanding of, and support for, the U. S. Constitution.

To help illuminate key issues that are vague in many minds, let us explore the following questions:

Why is the Constitution of special interest to Latter_Day Saints?

Why was and is the Constitution critically important?

What are some of the key principles of the Constitution?

Why was our Constitution successful in undergirding freedom?

How did America commemorate the Bicentennial of the Constitution?

What was done to educate people to the religious dimensions of the Constitution?

How can we individually convey the Constitutional heritage?

Why is the Constitution of special interest to the Latter-day Saints?

The Gospel emphasizes that wise and inspired use of free choice in the overcoming of opposition is the ladder we must climb to progress.

Free agency was the core of our Father’s plan for mortality, and one third of our brothers and sisters lost the opportunity to come to earth by succumbing to the guiles of coercion over liberty.

But constructive use of free agency is not facile, for as Lehi told Jacob, there must needs be “an opposition in all things.” Without opposition, “righteousness could not be brought to pass” and there could “be no happiness.”

The greater the opposition, the greater the self-pity and complaint of many people. This overlooks the fact that the greater the opposition, the greater the opportunity for development of God-like spirituality and qualities as well as achievement of righteousness and happiness.

Thus it is easy to understand that the Constitution of the United States was not a happenstance, but a divinely planned phenomenon. As God revealed, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.”(D&C 101:80).

Wilford Woodruff, who, after visitations by the Founding Fathers, did temple work for them, bore “testimony” that they “were the best spirits the God of Heaven could find on the face of the earth.” (Conference Report, April 1898, pp.89_90. For a more detailed presentation of these topics, see This Nation Shall Endure by Ezra Taft Benson).

Incidentally, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Christopher Columbus, and John Wesley were ordained high priests. (This Nation Shall Endure, p.22.)

J. Reuben Clark said “There has not been another such group in all the years of our history.” (Conference Report, April 1957, p.47.) Despite riding in buggies they had “a political wisdom garnered for the ages.” (Stand Fast by Our Constitution, p.136.)

Forest McDonald in the prestigious annual National Endowment for the Humanities lecture in 1987 said “to put it bluntly it would be impossible in America today to assemble a group of people with anything near the combined experience, learning and wisdom of the 55 Framers.” Thirty-five delegates had attended college, which required such abilities as to translate the first 10 chapters of John from Greek into Latin, be expert in arithmetic and have a blameless moral character. McDonald asked if any Americans today could enter college with those requirements. Incidentally, the percentage of Americans who could read and write was higher than in any other country, and higher than in America today.

Assessments of such distinguished historians harmonize with the revelations that God raised up the men who wrote the Constitution. It is probable that the Constitution was essential for the Church to be restored.

In 1973, the First Presidency urged us “to reflect more intently on the meaning and importance of the Constitution” and “to rededicate ourselves to the lofty principles and practices of our founding fathers…” (Ensign, November 1973, p.90.)

Why was the Constitution so important?

Hugh Nibley asserts that when hunting tribes learned that, with their bows and arrows, they could subjugate and exploit pastoral tribes, the state was born.

Though free agency is the divine way, human history is a parade of tyranny, because political leaders used their free agency to subjugate others.

For example, when the Athenians conquered Melos, they slaughtered every male of military age and sold all women and children into slavery.

When 3000 Roman soldiers died to capture 10,000 Lugurians, who were then sold into slavery, the venture was viewed as profitable. But death in pursuit of conquest and enslavement are not parts of the divine mandate nor of civilized well-being.

Of course, enmity to freedom and life are not restricted to the ancient world. We remember the French Louis XIV saying “Le etat se moi, ” I am the state–followed by the citizenry rising up and beheading the nobility by guillotine.

We remember Stalin murdering 15 million peasants; Hitler murdering millions of Jews; the Nigerian Yorubas and Hausas killing or forcing to flee a million Ibos; Idi Amin’s ghastly skull cracking and other tortures in Uganda; Saddam Hussein killing a million and a half Muslims by many means including removing babies from incubators in Kuwait, and so forth. We freshly recognize that a breadth of freedom has been a rare and priceless possession.

Where freedom exists, as after the destruction of Nazi Germany, totalitarian Japan, the Communist Soviet Union, and Taliban Afghanistan, it has often come through the action of the country governed by our Constitution.

What are some of the principles of the Constitution?

How many U.S. citizens could list most of the following principles?

First, that government can only do that which the people have authorized – a major discontinuity with previous history.

Second, the popular will is expressed in a governing covenant that is carefully written to avoid misunderstanding or distortion by power seekers. Ours was the first written Constitution for a large nation.

Third, the rule of law. There must be no punishment unless there has been a violation of a law that was in force at the time.

Fourth, due process. No one may be deprived of life, liberty or property without fair procedure.

Fifth, personal guarantees in the original document and the Bill of Rights – no ex post facto law, no unreasonable search or seizure, freedom of religion_speech_press_etc.

Sixth, the elimination of caste, hereditary title and special privilege legally based on birth.

Why did our Constitution effectively undergird freedom?

During previous history whenever a regime had enough power to govern, it also had enough power to subjugate the people and perpetuate itself. Once a regime was entrenched it didn’t change until the death, often violent, of its leader.

The sagacious and inspired break-through of the Constitution was to allow no one to monopolize power. Power was to be in various independent clusters. So if abuse occurred, independent sources of power could attack the abuse. How was this dispersal of power structured? Through:

1) Checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

2) Decentralization through federalism, intended by the Tenth Amendment to reserve all powers to the States or the people that were not “delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States”.

3) Freedom of religion, speech and press, allowing people to criticize, mobilize and counter_attack. (How many journalists realize that the Founders put freedom of religion ahead of freedom of press in the First Amendment?)

4) Protection of private property which reduces people’s vulnerability to politicians’ retaliations for criticism. How many people will attack holders of office if they risk losing their homes or property.

No government has socialized private property without suffocating political freedom because once economic power is concentrated, independent political power is denied a base from which to operate.

Madison saw the Constitution as creating a thriving commercial republic that promotes well-being and progress while dispersing power. The Constitution promoted science and inventions by such features as the patent and copyright protections.

The founders were correct in seeing private competitive enterprise as both undergirding political freedom and making the country prosper. The United States starting with only three to four million people largely near the seacoast and only minimal infrastructure, through the Constitution released the vast creative powers of the citizens that led to scientific and economic leadership and innovations in all fields.

Consider Communist China. Until they began incorporating elements of capitalism two decades ago, they had only modestly increased their $500 annual per capita income since 1950. Taiwan, with greater freedom of enterprise and political freedom, multiplied its per capita income by ten times to around $5000 during the same period.

Other historical factors that helped make the Constitution work:

1) Scholars typically attribute to European philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu the Constitution, but sometimes neglect American history as a source of experience and ideas. American experimentation with self-government for a century and a half before the Constitution provided perhaps the most innovative experience with political institutions in history. The Constitution was not merely a set of ideas, it was grounded in experience.

2) Its written formulation came from men divinely called for that enduring purpose.

3) Some 70 million immigrants have been willing to leave friends and family to enjoy, and energize the commitment to, liberty and its blessings.

4) Another reason our Constitution worked is that many citizens deeply believed in the Constitution and were willing to sacrifice for it – as demonstrated one more time following 9-11-01. This need for public virtue and religious commitment was seen by the Founders.

Most non-LDS historians are secular in their orientation and, over time, they sifted out religious elements of the Founding from their narratives.

Two BYU political scientists, Richard Vetterli (now deceased) and Gary Bryner, after many years of assiduous review of documents pertaining to the Founding produced a book: In Search of the Republic. This book met sufficiently high scholarly standards that the University of Virginia Press offered to publish it, but the authors chose a commercial press, Roman and Littlefield.

What becomes clear is that the Founders had essentially the same view of divine involvement in the Founding that the restored Church and many other religious Americans have.

George Washington declared: “The success, which has hitherto attended our united efforts, we owe the gracious interposition of Heaven.” (To the Executive of New Hampshire, November 3, 1789.)

Benjamin Franklin said: “without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel; we shall be divided by our little, partial local interests…” (Jared Sparks, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 1837, pp.155_56.)

Charles Pinckney said: “When the great work was done and published, I was…struck with amazement. Nothing less than that superintending hand of Providence, that so miraculously carried us through the war…could have brought it about so complete, upon the whole.” (P. L. Ford, ed., Essays on the Constitution, 1892, p.412.)

James Madison wrote in Federalist 37: “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.” (Federalist, no.37.)

Hundreds of similar clear affirmations show most Framers to be deeply religious men, though not always strongly committed to particular churches of their time. They believed in the dignity of man, natural law and natural rights and active Divine involvement in the coming forth of the Constitution. They also believed that religion was a necessity for the Constitution to work.

DeTocqueville laid out the problem. When you decentralize power to the citizens of a republic, you no longer have a monarch to force people to be good. So the motivation to be good and responsible citizens of a republic must come from within. The Framers believed that the internal motivation to be good must largely derive from religious faith. So, they believed that religion was indispensable to producing the public virtue and responsibility necessary for the success of the new Constitution.

For example, John Adams stated categorically: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John R. Howe, Jr., The Changing Political thought of John Adams, Princeton University Press, 1966, p.185.)

Jefferson expressed the need for government leaders to possess certain standards of ethical conduct. They needed to be

enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man;

acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter_with these blessings, what more necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people?

(James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897, 1:322.)

American history is replete with examples of the public virtue called for by the Founders.

Hamilton, Jay and Madison, saw that their hope of creating a great nation might be dashed by the rejection of New York’s Constitutional Convention that was almost two and a half to one opposed to the Constitution. To save the future nation, they became volunteers and valiantly wrote and disseminated the Federalist Papers and otherwise strove until they finally won New York’s ratification by a narrow three vote margin – a marvelous example of civic virtue producing an outcome of enormous consequence!

Senator Ross of Kansas relinquished his political career to vote against impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, thereby maintaining a balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that that outcome slowed down the Republican effort to give the newly freed slaves full freedom.

Chief Justice Warren Burger retired from the most powerful judicial position in the world in order to devote full time to being chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

Many judges make enormous financial sacrifices to continue their public service. For example, Justice Nino Scalia could earn ten times his Supreme Court salary by resigning and entering private practice.

How did America commemorate the Constitution?

Senator Orrin Hatch, with the help of staff member Randy Rader (who is now a Federal Judge) deserves great credit for introducing and pushing a bill to create a Commission on the Bicentennial in 1981. It passed the Senate but the House took no action. It was stopped by a Congressional committee chairman, who later went to prison, who said that commemorating the Constitution did not do anything to help his constituents in Brooklyn. Hatch introduced a bill again in 1983. It finally passed both Houses and was signed by President Reagan late in 1984. The 23 member commission was appointed and first met July 30, 1985, – after two centuries had already elapsed since key events leading to the Constitutional Convention and with less than two years before the commemoration of the opening of the Constitutional Convention.

Only $331,000 was initially appropriated, compared with $250 million (in 1985 dollars) spent by the Federal Government on the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.

The Commission comprised very different types of people ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to Senator Ted Kennedy.

The task of quickly creating a totally new organization that is effective is enormous.

One person was offered the job of staff director, but after reviewing the situation concluded that the job was a suicide mission and turned it down. In fact virtually no one in the nation’s capital expected the Constitutional Commemoration to amount to anything.

I was drafted to become staff director. Given the importance of assuring that the Commemoration educated the public on the philosophy and history of the Constitution and our heritage, in which the oncoming generation was not being well educated, I accepted.

President Ezra Taft Benson was virtually the only person who foresaw what was going to happen. He unequivocally prophetically stated that the success of the commemoration would exceed anyone’s expectation!

Elder Dallin Oaks had years earlier suggested that a prospective national commission could accomplish relatively little alone. However, its efforts could be vastly multiplied if it could stimulate activity by an array of private and public organizations.

This concept, that a small match could create a large forest fire, became a major strategy of the Commission. We hoped to draw on the same type of patriotic volunteerism that created and ratified the Constitution. This willingness of Americans to solve problems on a voluntary basis, incidentally, was described by DeTocqueville as the most remarkable feature of the new American system.

At the same time, we wanted to achieve other goals. American commemorations had become largely holidays and entertainment, and had drifted away from serious education. We wanted to achieve more public education about the subject being commemorated than had ever previously been done. We also wanted to create, apparently for the first time, a continuation of achieving the goals of the commemoration after the Commission had disappeared.

We decided to create, and attempt to have taught, a serious six week curriculum unit on the Constitution initially for high schools, then modified for middle schools and the fifth grade.. Almost no one gave this much chance. We were told that neither students nor teachers were interested, and that as far back as 1916 the National Education Association had urged reduction of teaching about the Constitution. Also, unlike France, where a single national decision determines curriculum for the entire country, in the United States, curricular decisions were massively dispersed among thousands of educational officials and teachers and the system was biased against innovation.

Nevertheless, we proceeded to develop the unit through the Center for Civic Education in southern California headed by Chuck Quigley ( We devised strategies, including Congressional funding of ten sets of materials for each Congressional District to be given to exemplary teachers who committed to use them. In the first year, 1987-88, half a million students studied the unit. The annual number jumped to 1.8 million and has become institutionalized in many schools. Thousands of high school classes work intensely to compete in the annual national competition that focuses on such areas as the ideas and history that led to the Constitution, the writing of the Constitution, the debates over and ratification of the Constitution, the creation of the new government, Constitutional rights and Constitutional responsibilities. More than 27 million youth have now studied this unit.

Educational Testing Service of Princeton tested typical high school classes who studied the six week unit and gave the same test to political science majors at an elite university, UCLA, and found that the high school students knew more about the Constitution and understood its conceptions better than the UCLA students. This program is impacting the thinking of a segment of the oncoming generation.

The unit has been translated and adapted and is now being taught widely in Russian schools and in other countries.

Also, the Commission persuaded the Congress to create the Madison Fellowship program, which provides at least one scholarship for a social science or history teacher from every state each year to obtain a masters degree focusing on the Constitution.

Despite the modest funding of the Commission, its outreach effort led to pervasive volunteer educational commemorative activity.

* All 50 States created Bicentennial Commissions and programs, despite no lure of Federal grants.

* Some 2500 local governments became Bicentennial Communities with commissions and programs, again despite no Federal grants to induce them.

* Virtually all Federal agencies and many military installations and universities established bicentennial programs.

* The media which was largely uninterested initially, became massively involved. There were 31,700 articles about the Constitution and Bicentennial in a single month. Radio and television programs were also pervasive.

* Thousands of private organizations had convention programs or luncheon speakers on the Constitution.

*Disney World made the theme of their fifteenth birthday, the Bicentennial of the Constitution, resulting in early Constitutional articles and audio visual features produced by many of the 6000 journalists attending.

*American Express financed a truck with a beautiful exhibit including an original Magna Carta and an original late draft of the Constitution which were shown in 26 states.

Incidentally, the cab was provided by Tony Burns, President of Ryder and a member of the National Advisory Council to the Marriott School of Management at BYU.

* Many millions of copies of the Constitution were distributed by Citibank and Phillip’s Petroleum.

* General Mills whose president at that time, Mark Willes, is a nephew of President Gordon B. Hinckley, printed 15 historical vignettes on 100 million cereal boxes.

* McDonalds did four beautiful Constitutional tray mats with historical information and quizzes estimated to be seen four hundred million times. Roy Rogers, then owned by Marriott, also did Constitutional tray mats. Millions of milk cartons carried Constitutional vignettes.

* Xerox and Nabisco sponsored a Celebration of Citizenship on September 16, 1987, which drew one of the largest crowds ever to the capital and was telecast to schools and the public by ABC.

* Merrill Lynch contributed $6 million to help finance State ratification commemoration and other educational activities.

These programs not only reached virtually every citizen, but also are stimulating increased interest in education of other types about the Constitution in the schools.

What was done to help people understand the religious dimensions of the Constitution?

As with other private organizations, religious groups were encouraged to participate. Countless sermons were given, emphasizing religious freedom, the weekends before and after September 17.

Our Church carried out one the most outstanding programs with a special Family Home Evening Manual, great exhibits prepared by Ron Mann, balls, President Benson’s speech on the Heavenly Banner, etc. The BYU produced a quality multi_million dollar film on the Constitutional Convention, ratification and swearing in of President George Washington.

To permit people to be aware of the Founders’ emphasis on public virtue, morality and religion, Vetterli and Bryner’s In Search of the Republic was listed on our bibliography of which more than a million copies were printed and distributed.

Similarly the painting of George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge by Arnold Friberg was included in our first Bicentennial Calendar that was widely distributed.

How should you commemorate the Constitution?

Without the help of a national commemoration, how can each of us contribute to continuing growth of understanding of and fidelity to the Constitution?

Every citizen can participate in four activities to help continue the commemoration.

1) Read books on the Founding, such as Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia, Forrest McDonald’s Novus Ordo Seclorum; The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, and Vetterli and Bryner’s In Search of the Republic. Also read books about the Founders such as David McCullough’ remarkable new book on John Adams.

2) Encourage the organizations to which you belong to plan for talks and activities on the Constitution, particularly around the date of its signing, September 17.

3) Excite the minds of your children and grandchildren and friends, with fascinating stories, history and ideas about the Constitution and its importance.

4) Exemplify public virtue by good citizenship, including participating actively in selection and election of candidates to public office. Such participation gives an individual hundreds of times more influence on outcomes than the average citizens have

In conclusion, the Constitution of the United States is one of God’s major works, a heavenly banner as Joseph Smith described it. A vast share of the population that have ever lived on earth have lived since the Constitution was created. It undergirds free agency and came forth in modern time enabling the United States to have the longest continuing period of ordered liberty in history, and to influence many other countries toward ordered liberty, and to permit the establishment and growth of the restored church.

Nevertheless, astute observers recognize that any system of freedom is precarious, and our prophets have foreseen that the Constitution would hang by a thread and that we have a responsibility to uphold and protect it. That is an awesome responsibility!


2002 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.