George Will’s July 4 column on the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reminded me of an explanatory phrase for these two foundational documents that I came across some time ago: The Declaration is the “why” and the Constitution is the “how.”

The Declaration explained why the colonies were seceding from the British Empire: to free themselves of absolutism – from the arbitrary, imperious dictates of a delusional autocrat. In the section of the Declaration known as the “indictment,” a detailed list of the monarch’s abuses of authority and violations of the natural rights of the people were set forth.

Eleven years later, when it was apparent that the “firm league of friendship” established under the Articles of Confederation was an insufficient foundation on which to build national unity, the Constitution was drafted. It describes how a people will try to govern themselves through a balanced political structure in which powers are distributed, shared and checked.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has been called a second Declaration of Independence. In the midst of this country’s greatest test of survival, Lincoln reminded us that it is up to us, the people, to determine whether our collective experiment in self-government would prevail or perish. Once again, we are locked in a period of acute civil strife. Will the Enlightenment-era inspired structure of the American political system of reason and deliberation find a new birth of freedom as it is once again assailed by the signature elements of the Dark Ages, ignorance and overt bigotry? As before, the answer lies with us. We, the people.

Joe Wagner


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