- Historic Sites
The British Vew
The recent British ambassador to Washington takes a generous-spirited but clear-eyed look at the document that, as he points out, owes its existence to King George III
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
Some foreigners protest that it is a ripoff, or get paranoid and suspect conspiracy. In fact, there is no conspiracy, only rather amazing foresight on the part of the fathers of the Constitution, who protected their infant Republic better than they knew. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, warned his fellow Americans against “entangling alliances.” He needn’t have bothered. The U.S. Constitution makes it very nearly impossible for the United States to get into any sort of alliance, entangling or otherwise. But not quite. Today the United States has many allies. Britain is fortunate to be one of them. The hope of your allies must be that your Constitution will make it even more difficult for you to disentangle than it was for them to entangle.
“What a piece of work is a man!” said Hamlet, and went on: “How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! … in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” He spoke these lines some two hundred years before the United States Constitution was written, but he might have had those country gentlemen who drafted it in mind. The Constitution is the first great—and still, perhaps, the greatest—work of those who had been English colonists and had become Americans. It is a unique American contribution to the civilization of man. For as Justice Brandeis observed, the Constitution is designed “not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power.” The Supreme Court’s decision in Gramm-Rudman made very much the same point.
The founding fathers got their priorities right. America has always been about freedom, to the great benefit of itself and of all the rest of us.
We are all, indeed, civilized by the existence of the United States Constitution. Americans have the right to be immensely proud of it and to celebrate its bicentennial with pride and thoughtfulness. We in Britain can also be proud of it, even if our contribution was only that of the piece of grit in the oyster that produced the pearl. Maybe George III was not such a bad guy after all.