Perspective: Our inspired Constitution

The U.S. Constitution is the foundation for a well-ordered government of laws, and not of men

Editor’s note: Today, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day in America. The following was published as part of Deseret Magazine’s July/August edition, which focused on the U.S. Constitution.

George Washington was perhaps the first to use the word miracle in describing the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. In a 1788 letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, he said: “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the delegates from so many different states (which states you know are also different from each other in their manners, circumstances and prejudices) should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well-founded objections.”

It was a miracle. Consider the setting.

The 13 colonies and 3.5 million Americans who had won independence from the British crown a few years earlier were badly divided on many fundamental issues. Some thought the colonies should reaffiliate with the British crown. Among those who favored continued independence, the most divisive issue was whether the United States should have a strong central government to replace the weak “league of friendship” established by the Articles of Confederation. 

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Under the Confederation of 1781, there was no executive or judicial authority, and the national Congress had no power to tax or to regulate commerce. Congress could not even protect itself.

In July 1783, an armed mob of former Revolutionary War soldiers seeking back wages threatened to take Congress hostage at its meeting in Philadelphia. When Pennsylvania declined to provide militia to protect them, the congressmen fled. Thereafter Congress was something of a laughingstock, wandering from city to city. No wonder the first purpose stated in the preamble of the new United States Constitution was “to form a more perfect union.” 

That they accomplished it was indeed miraculous.

After I began teaching law at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, an older professor asked me a challenging question about Latter-day Saint beliefs regarding the U.S. Constitution. 

Earlier in his career this professor had taught at University of Utah’s College of Law. There he met many students who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “They all seemed to believe that the Constitution was divinely inspired,” he said, “but none of them could ever tell me what this meant or how it affected their interpretation of the Constitution.” 

I took that challenge personally.

I believe the Constitution is divinely inspired because it contains principles and rights that bless not only this nation but also the world. That’s not to say that the document is perfect, but from its attributing sovereign power to the people, and its vital Bill of Rights, to its application of the separation of powers and balancing of powers between the federal government and the states, the Constitution is the foundation for a well-ordered government of laws, and not of men.   

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I have studied the U.S. Constitution for more than 60 years. 

As a law clerk to the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court; as a professor of law for 15 years; and as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court for three and a half years, the Constitution was a central focus of my work. And as an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’ve spent 37 years studying the meaning of the U.S. Constitution as it relates to my own faith and how it protects diverse religious traditions in America. 

To facilitate moral agency — the power to decide and to act — is an important divine purpose for the Constitution. The most desirable condition for the exercise of moral agency is maximum freedom for men and women to act according to their individual choices. Then, as it says in Latter-day Saint scripture, “every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:78) The scripture continues: “Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:79)

This obviously means that human slavery is wrong. And according to the same principle, it is wrong for citizens to have no voice in the selection of their rulers or the making of their laws.

The U.S. Constitution is one of the oldest written constitutions in the world. It has enhanced freedom and prosperity during the changing conditions of more than 200 years. Frequently copied, it has become the United States’ most important export

After two centuries, every nation in the world except three have written constitutions, and the U.S. Constitution was a model for nearly all of them. The U.S. Constitution is unique because God revealed that he “established” it “for the rights and protection of all flesh.” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:77)

The original impetus for what became the Constitutional Convention was to discuss amendments to the Articles of Confederation. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, two farsighted young statesmen still in their 30s, favored a strong national government and promoted the meeting. They persuaded a reluctant George Washington to attend and then used his influence in a letter-writing campaign to encourage participation by all the states. 

As the delegates assembled in Philadelphia, there were already ominous signs of disunity. The states were in debt. The national treasury was empty. Inflation was rampant. The various currencies were nearly worthless. Rebelling against their inclusion in New York state, prominent citizens of Vermont had already entered into negotiations to rejoin the British crown. In the Western territory, Kentucky leaders were speaking openly about turning from the union and forming alliances with the Old World.

Instead of reacting timidly because of disunity and weakness, the delegates boldly ignored the terms of their invitation to amend the Articles of Confederation and instead set out to write an entirely new constitution. They were conscious of their place in history. For millennia the world’s people had been ruled by kings or tyrants. Now a group of colonies had won independence. They had a unique opportunity to establish a constitutional government Abraham Lincoln would later describe as “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The success of the convention was attributable in large part to the remarkable wisdom of the delegates. As James Madison wrote in the preface to his notes on the Constitutional Convention: “There never was an assembly of men, charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them.” 

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My belief that the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired does not mean that divine revelation dictated every word and phrase, such as the provisions allocating the number of representatives from each state or the minimum age of each.

The Constitution was not “a fully grown document,” said J. Reuben Clark, who served as the U.S. undersecretary of state and as a leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “On the contrary,” he explained, “we believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.” For example, inspired amendments abolished slavery and gave women the right to vote. 

The nation struggled to live up to the lofty principles espoused in the nation’s founding documents, including the words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But, thankfully, the Constitution has over time inspired citizens to treat each other on a more equal basis. 

As a young lawyer in Chicago during the late 1950s, I observed a pattern of employment among large law firms in which Jewish law graduates were hired by Jewish firms, and non-Jewish graduates were hired by non-Jewish firms.

The firm where I worked, Kirkland, Ellis, Hodson, Chaffetz & Masters (known today as Kirkland & Ellis) followed that same pattern. My colleague, Robert H. Bork, who was later nominated to be a justice on the Supreme Court, sought to change that. 

In 1957, Howard G. Krane, who was Jewish, interviewed for a job at Kirkland. On his merits, Krane — who had been a classmate and on the law review with me at the University of Chicago — should have received an offer. Instead, he was brushed aside because he was Jewish.

When Bork learned about Krane’s rejection he was incensed. He talked to me about his intention to change the firm’s practice of excluding Jewish graduates from employment.

I assured him that Krane was an outstanding prospect, and I promised my support. 

We went together to the managing partner of the firm, Howard Ellis. Though only young associates, we took a strong position: Failing to hire Krane because he is Jewish was not only extremely shortsighted for a firm that was interested in top talent but was also deeply offensive to some young lawyers the firm was obviously grooming for future leadership. Krane was immediately hired and much later became that large firm’s managing partner. 

America has been blessed by an inspired Constitution that aims at equal justice and the advancement of all on the basis of merit. In addition to equal justice, in my judgment the U.S. Constitution contains at least five divinely inspired principles.

“I see divine inspiration in the vital purpose of the entire Constitution.”

First is the principle that the source of government power is the people. In a time when sovereign power was universally assumed to come from the divine right of kings or from military power, attributing sovereign power to the people was revolutionary. Philosophers had advocated this, but the U.S. Constitution was the first to apply it. Sovereign power in the people does not mean that mobs or other groups of people can intervene to intimidate or force government action. The Constitution established a constitutional democratic republic, where the people exercise their power through their elected representatives.

A second inspired principle is the division of delegated power between the nation and its subsidiary states. In our federal system, this unprecedented principle has sometimes been altered by inspired amendments, such as those abolishing slavery and extending voting rights to women. Significantly, the U.S. Constitution limits the national government to the exercise of powers granted expressly or by implication, and it reserves all other government powers “to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Another inspired principle is the separation of powers. Well over a century before our 1787 Constitutional Convention, the English Parliament pioneered the separation of legislative and executive authority when they wrested certain powers from the king. The inspiration in the American convention was to delegate independent executive, legislative and judicial powers so these three branches could exercise checks upon one another.

A fourth inspired principle is in the cluster of vital guarantees of individual rights and specific limits on government authority in the Bill of Rights, adopted by amendment just three years after the Constitution went into force. A bill of rights was not new. Here the inspiration was in the practical implementation of principles pioneered in England, beginning with the Magna Carta. The writers of the Constitution were familiar with these because some of the colonial charters had such guarantees.

Without a Bill of Rights, America could not have served as the host nation for the establishment of my own faith tradition, which was founded just three decades later. There was divine inspiration in the original provision that there should be no religious test for public office, but the addition of the religious freedom and anti-establishment guarantees in the First Amendment was vital. I also see divine inspiration in the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech and press and in the personal protections in other amendments, such as for criminal prosecutions.

Fifth and finally, I see divine inspiration in the vital purpose of the entire Constitution. We are to be governed by law and not by individuals, and our loyalty is to the Constitution and its principles and processes, not to any officeholder. In this way, all persons are to be equal before the law. These principles block the autocratic ambitions that have corrupted democracy in some countries. They also mean that none of the three branches of government should be dominant over the others or prevent the others from performing their proper constitutional functions to check one another.

Despite the divinely inspired principles of the U.S. Constitution, when exercised by imperfect mortals their intended effects have not always been achieved. For example, people of faith need not view every Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution as inspired. 

And important subjects of lawmaking, such as some laws governing family relationships, have been taken from the states by the federal government. The First Amendment guarantee of free speech has sometimes been diluted by suppression of unpopular speech. The principle of separation of powers has always been under pressure with the ebb and flow of one branch of government exercising or inhibiting the powers delegated to another.

There are other threats that undermine the inspired principles of the U.S. Constitution. The stature of the Constitution is diminished by efforts to substitute current societal trends as the reason for its founding, instead of liberty and self-government. The authority of the Constitution is trivialized when candidates or officials ignore its principles. The dignity and force of the Constitution is reduced by those who refer to it like a loyalty test or a political slogan, instead of its lofty status as a source of authorization for and limits on government authority.

We have a unique responsibility in these times to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution and principles of constitutionalism. We should trust in God and be positive about this nation’s future.

“Despite the divinely inspired principles of the U.S. Constitution, when exercised by imperfect mortals their intended effects have not always been achieved.”

We must pray for the Lord to guide and bless all nations and their leaders, even when we might oppose individual laws or policies. We must exercise our influence civilly and peacefully within the framework of our constitutions and applicable laws. On contested issues, we should seek to moderate and unify.

There are other duties that are part of upholding the inspired Constitution. We should learn and advocate the inspired principles of the Constitution. We should seek out and support wise and good persons who will support those principles in their public actions. We should be knowledgeable citizens who are active in making our influence felt in civic affairs.

In the United States and in other democracies, political influence is exercised by running for office, by voting, by financial support, by membership and service in political parties, and by ongoing communications to officials, parties and candidates. To function well, a democracy needs all of these, but a conscientious citizen does not need to provide all of them.

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There are many political issues, and no party, platform or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Each citizen must therefore decide which issues are most important to him or her at any particular time. Then we should seek inspiration on how to exercise influence according to individual priorities. This process will not be easy. It may require changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election.

Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve. We should never assert that people of faith and goodwill cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate. The Constitution of the United States is inspired. Through embracing its principles, we can enhance unity and tranquility among citizens, and we can continue to face the future with faith as one nation, under God. 

President Dallin H. Oaks is the first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This essay draws on previously published articles and addresses by President Oaks.

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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