“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government - lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
To understand this, you have to understand some basic concepts about the United States Constitution. The constitution, unlike any government structure before it, was written specifically and deliberately to limit
the federal government. Instead of government being given all power with specific limitations in the document (such as, for example, the Magna Carta), the US Constitution presumed the federal government had no
power save that which the document permitted them.
This is made more clear when you read the 9th and 10th amendments:
9. The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
10. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
All power in the United States was presumed and designed to be in the hands of the people and the states, which was then in limited form and within specific boundaries granted to the representatives elected by these people in the federal government. The founding fathers made this concept abundantly clear in both the federalist and anti-federalist papers, documents written by the ones who drafted and finished the constitution while arguing about its nature and construction. James Madison, who was the primary writer
of the constitution said: "The Constitution of the United States was created by the people of the United States composing the respective states, who alone had the right.”
Thomas Jefferson also emphasized this point: "The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed and that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of press." Jefferson was also eager to point out the limitations on power by those elected officials: "In matters of Power, let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
It was always presumed by the founding fathers, whatever their differences, that the one true threat to liberty was the power assumed by governing officials. They viewed the federal government as a rapacious, ever-hungering source of lust for power which could only be restrained by the people's right to bear arms and a strict obedience to the constitution. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that over time this liberty would be infringed upon by clever lawyers and elected officials who would use every trick to squeeze more power for themselves by reinterpreting the document.
His solution? Place the constitution in its context: "On every question of construction [of the Constitution] let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." James Madison agreed, saying "Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government."
This government would be small, limited, and in many cases quite weak. James Madison envisioned a federal government that was weaker than the states: “The number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular states. There will consequently be less of personal influence on the side of the former than of the latter.”
And today, we see quite the opposite. Instead of a weak, limited federal government, we see a nearly all-powerful, all-encompassing federal government. Instead of a federal government limited by an iron clad constitution, we see a government which tells restaurants what size they must print the nutritional details of their food and what sort of toilet, shower head, and light bulb free citizens of the states may purchase and install in their homes.
Conservatives want to recapture the spirit and intent of the founding fathers, which is a smaller, more limited government. They wish this not because small is better, but because limited means greater freedom among the people and is what the nation was founded on, grew with, and became great based upon. Conservatives see limits in government and its expansion, limits which the federal government has long since surpassed at the hands of men like Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, Bush, and Obama.
Progressives, by contrast, see no limits - indeed, this is one of the defining characteristics of "progressivism." It can see no limits, because that is the very nature of progress, it is eternal and continuous. We must, according to the progressive, progress and evolve beyond what the founding fathers had envisioned for this nation. A small, limited government was fine for their time
but we've progressed beyond that and must have ever more government and ever less liberty for individual citizens; and always for our own good.
Conservatives do not want to preserve a certain snapshot in time, for we see the bad with the good. In the past, streets were safer and people tended to be more polite in public, but women were considered childish and unable to function without a man's strong leading hand. Minorities were considered human but not exactly equal, even in progressive parts of the country such as the west. Christianity was so presumed as the dominant religion that any other faith was sometimes attacked, prevented full liberty, or even shunned. The good conservatives want to maintain from the past always presumes that bad must be avoided and ended as well.
That's where the leadership of conservatism comes from. Progressives have had their day, and the results are obvious to see. Some of it has been good, such as an end to the institutionalized racism and oppression of women which the past once saw. Much of it has been bad, such as coddling of criminals, degradation of educational quality, culture, and public ethics. Conservatives see this and declare a need to reject the mainstream dominant culture, to reject the establishment left in politics, culture, education, entertainment, and society.
The time has come for a cultural revolution which takes the good which has been abandoned in the past - family, liberty, and more - and move into the future with the great advances what little momentum from the past remained to propel us into the 21st century. And for conservatives, the very core of that is ideological; an allegiance to the ideals the founding fathers called for. Ideals of equality in justice, liberty, and opportunity which can only come about through virtue, limited government, and a respect for others through tolerance and unity.
Conservatives aren't preservationists because we believe in moving forward by returning to the principles abandoned by the "progressive." Indeed, we believe that we cannot
move forward without those basic principles acting as a solid foundation for liberty and justice for all. Rejecting the politics of division so carefully honed by the left over the last century, conservatives want a return to constitutional principles of liberty which will bring us prosperity, advancement, and expansion which created the United States we see today, but are starting to lose because of the decay of leftist ideology.
Leftists want to preserve their ideology, not move forward into the future with liberty, but instead to place ever greater limits on your freedom and mine based on their ideas of morality and "social justice" which is little more than envy and class strife given a noble sounding label. Conservatives want to move past the concepts of racial divide into a time when how dark your skin is matters as much as what color your eyes are. Conservatives want to move forward, and the potential of a conservative nation framed by the US Constitution and the principles of liberty and virtue the founding fathers embraced is nearly limitless.
*This was written for Constitution Day for RightNetwork but to my knowledge never got picked up. They're still getting organized so things aren't running as smoothly yet as they soon will, I hope.