The Constitution is America’s Covenant of Liberty

By: May 23, 2011


First, let me say that I am expressing here my own view of the Tea Party movement’s understanding of the Constitution. Others within the movement may see it differently, but I think I’ve captured the sentiments of a good number of us.

You ask  “[i]s “covenant” a reference to the incontrovertible fact that the document was written via delegation and ratified via representation?”

I use the term “secular covenant” to describe  the binding nature of the Constitution. It represents an agreement between the citizens, the state governments, and the federal government as to how we consent to be governed.  The terms of this secular covenant are contained in the words of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, and their meaning is the plain meaning of those words. The method of changing the terms of the secular covenant is found in the amendment process of the document itself. No other means of changing the terms–either expansive judicial interpretrations or executive usurpations–are authentic.

I elaborate on this theme in greater detail in my upcoming book, which will be released by Broadside Books in spring 2012, Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement. In the limited space of this blog, here’s the thumbnail sketch of the definitions of different concepts relevant to my argument:

Contract, Compact, Secular Covenant

Typically a “contract” refers to a binding legal agreement between two parties. It is a private, rather than public agreement. It is important to note that “the sanctity of contract” is a legal principle at the core of the Anglo-American tradition of liberty, and that both “compacts” and “secular covenants” can be viewed as types of public contracts.

A “compact” — such as the Mayflower Compact or “the social compact” — is an agreement among citizens within a society or a community in which they consent to participate in a particular form of governance.

The term “covenant” is derived from those congregational agreements signed by the early members of Puritan Christian congregations — in England and British America — during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Within those congregations grew the concept of theological self governance, which would soon be applied to the civil arena. Hence, the term “secular” covenant. Let me emphasize that though it’s worth discussing whether or not the secular covenant that is our Constitution was “providential” in nature (as many of the Founders believed), the document itself completely rejected the kind of Christian theocracy characteristic of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Cromwell’s England.

A “secular covenant” is like a compact. It is binding on our entire nation because its terms have been thoroughly debated and discussed in a lengthy public process. And yes, I think you could argue that the term “secular covenant” is more descriptive of the Constitution than the term “compact” because of the extensive, highly participative four year process that took place in America between 1787 and 1791 during which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were publicly discussed and accepted.

For these reasons, the Constitution can  be described as America’s covenant of liberty.

Michael Patrick Leahy is the editor of the Voices of the Tea Party e-book series and co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition. His new  e-book, I, Light Bulb: A Death Row Testimonial, will be published in July, 2011. His new book, Covenant of Liberty, will be published by Broadside Books in January, 2012. He can be reached on Twitter at @michaelpleahy .

5 Responses to The Constitution is America’s Covenant of Liberty

  1. Pingback: Chit Chat #2: What *Is* the Dang Constitution, Anyway? « Hysteriography

  2. J. L. Bell says:

    Does the phrase “expansive judicial interpretations” include the Marshall court’s Marbury v. Madison decision and others which have made the Supreme Court the final arbiter of what legislative and executive actions are constitutional?

    Those decisions came after the 1791 period, were not subject to nationwide discussion, and have produced controversy. But for better or for worse, the understanding of the Constitution those decisions established is now widely accepted.

    • Mr. Bell,

      You ask a good question.

      The principle of judicial review — that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the Constitutionality of laws passed by Congress — is entirely consistent with the tea party’s view of the Constitution as a secular covenant.

      When I refer to “expansive judicial interpretation” I refer to court decisions that apply concepts far beyond the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution. We see this often in the lower courts, and sometimes at the Supreme Court.

      Three horribly wrong Supreme Court decisions come to mind as examples of this:

      Dred Scott
      Wickard v Filburn
      Kelo v New London

      • J. L. Bell says:

        No doubt virtually all modern Americans would repudiate the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. But given how the pre-Civil War Constitution contained clauses that protected slavery and restricted the rights of slaves, and did not contain the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee equal protection, how did that decision “apply concepts far beyond the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution”?

        • Mr. Bell,

          I think if you take a look more closely at Dred Scott v. Sanford you will likely agree with me that the decision was, in fact, a stunning example of judicial overextension and that the majority opinion of the Supreme Court did ““apply concepts far beyond the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution.” The decision was based on political, not constitutional considerations.

          President-elect James Buchanan, in 1857 improperly corresponded with Associate Justice John Catron prior to the court’s deliberation on the case, and put political pressure on Justice Robert Grier to side with the majority. In the resulting decision, the court made two blatantly unconstitutional assertions:

          1.That blacks had no right to be citizens. This falsehood was belied by the fact that at the time of the ratification, ten of thirteen states allowed free blacks to vote.

          2. That Congress had no authority over territories of the United States.

          In their dissents, Justices Curtis and McLean pointed out these inconsistencies.

          Ultimately, the political process, a bloody war, and three amendments to the Constitution corrected this Supreme Court error.

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