The American Testament

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Forward by Harry A. Blackmun
(1908-1999) Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court

When Mortimer Adler writes, his observations are always deserving of the fullest consideration. The reader will inevitably learn and profit from that writing. But when Dr. Adler writes about the Constitution of the United States, it properly may be said that one has nothing less than a duty to read and to learn.

In 1976 we celebrated what we called the bicentennial of the United States of America. But that is not what it was. The United States of America did not come into existence in 1776. What existed then were thirteen colonies of King George III who were at war with British troops on this continent. The fighting had begun almost a year before, but it was not until July 4, 1776, that the colonies declared their independence of Great Britain and gave their reasons for doing so.

What we celebrated on July 4, 1976, was the two hundredth anniversary of the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence. It was a bicentennial, indeed, but not of the United States of America, a single, sovereign nation, a federal republic.

The closing paragraph of the Declaration of Independence opens with these words: “We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled . . .” The representatives assembled in the Continental Congress at Philadelphia did not represent a single nation which could then be designated by the proper name “The United States of America.” They represented thirteen sovereign states. United they were in their resolution to fight together for their independence, but they were united in no other way.

Seven years later, in 1783, the thirteen colonies, now emerging from a military victory as independent, sovereign states, entered into an agreement or contract with one another to remain loosely united in peace as they had been in war. The army that had successfully fought that war was called “the continental army,” not the army of the United States.

The loose union into which they entered for peaceful relationships was expounded in the “Articles of Confederation.” The subheading of this document reveals that these articles did not form or constitute a single, sovereign nation, for it reads: “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union Between the States . . .” after which follows an enumeration of the names of the thirteen colonies in an order dictated by their geographical location from north to south.

In 1787, after the loose union formed by these thirteen sovereign states gave signs of ceasing to be perpetual, representatives of each state met once again in Philadelphia to form a more perfect union, one that had more likelihood of becoming perpetual and also of preserving peace on this continent.

The document framing and formulating that more perfect union was entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.” It was properly called a “constitution” for it did two things that a constitution should do.

In the first place, it did “constitute” a single, sovereign state, unlike the Articles of Confederation (and also unlike the Charter of the United Nations), which did no more than establish an alliance of a number of independent states, each of which remained sovereign in relation to all the others, as sovereign as each was before it agreed to become a member of the confederacy.

In the second place, it did what the Articles of Confederation (or the Charter of the United Nations) could not do: it established a government, outlined its purposes, limited its scope, indicated the several branches of that government, and defined the offices of each branch, saying how they shall be filled and how the authority and power vested in each shall be related to one another.

When we today use the words “United States of America,” we are referring to the nation that is one of the many sovereign states that comprise the United Nations. But when, in 1776, the Declaration of Independence, in its concluding paragraph, introduced those who signed the Declaration by referring to them as “the representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled” those same words — “United States of America” — had a different meaning.

The thirteen colonies of Great Britain on the North American continent were united in their determination to be independent of British rule. If they won their war for independence, they wished to establish themselves as thirteen sovereign states. As they were cooperatively engaged in that war under the auspices of their Continental Congress, they could properly refer to themselves as the United States of America, but not as the United States of America in the sense in which we now understand those words.

How, then, shall we interpret the opening lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation”? What came into existence in 1776 was certainly not a new nation — that is, a new national state comparable to Great Britain, France, or Spain. What came into existence then was a “new people” who, through the Declaration, sought to justify in the eyes of the world their separation from the people of Great Britain and their right “to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”

In order to assume the station to which they thought they had a right, this “new people” had, first of all, to win a war. If they had not won that war, they could not have tried to perpetuate their independent status under the Articles of Confederation. Four years later, these two things having been accomplished, they could then try to form a more perfect union by drafting and adopting the Constitution of the United States, in the Preamble to which they refer to themselves as “We, the people of the United States . . .”

The words “United States” occurs twice in the Preamble, first in that opening phrase, then in the closing, which says that we, the people “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In its first occurrence, “United States” would have been more accurately written “united states,” for the same reason that it should have been written that way in the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, because the nation now known as the United States of America did not exist in 1787 any more than it did in 1776.

In its second occurrence, “United States” should be interpreted as having a prospective reference. It refers to the nation or national state that would come into existence only after the document drafted by the Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1787 was ratified or adopted by two-thirds of the thirteen states to be united.

That did not occur until August of 1788. The remaining states fell in line somewhat later than that. George Washington did not take office as the first President of the United States until March of 1789; not until that year did the first Congress of the United States assemble; and not until then were there ambassadors from the United States to the courts of the European nations.

In political as in biological life there is a period of gestation between conception and birth. What we are celebrating in the year 1987 is the bicentennial of the conception, not the birth, of the new nation that only from 1789 on could be properly referred to as the United States of America.

The Constitution that was drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 and then sent to the Confederation Congress, meeting in New York, for transmittal to the thirteen states presented the conception of a government that was both national and federal. If that conception had failed to win a sufficient number of ratifying adoptions, the federal republic, thus conceived, would not have come into existence in 1789.

Since the Constitution established a federal union, not a unitary state, each state entering the union still retained some measure of individual sovereignty. The states surrendered only their power to make war and peace, to enter into alliances with one another or with foreign nations, to make treaties, and so on. They retained some measure of local or internal sovereignty over the citizens residing within their borders.

A dual sovereignty was thus established: one that was national, the sovereignty of the federal government; and thirteen local sovereignties, the sovereignty of each of the states adopting the Constitution. The citizens who made up the people of the United States also had a dual citizenship. They became citizens of the new United States but also remained citizens of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the other states.

While the Declaration of Independence, as promulgated on July 4, 1776, did not bring this nation into existence or establish the government of the United States of America, it magnificently enunciated the fundamental principles of republican or constitutional government — principles that are not stated explicitly in the Constitution itself.

The Declaration was, therefore, in the most profound sense, a preface to the Constitution, more fundamental politically than the Constitution’s own Preamble. Since the word “preface” lacks the dignity and weight that should be accorded the Declaration in relation to the Constitution, we should perhaps think of it as the architectural blueprint for the government of the United States.

This understanding of the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution (and their related bicentennials) was expressed in a book published in 1976, written by me in collaboration with William Gorman, an associate at the Institute for Philosophical Research. That book, entitled “The American Testament”, was divided into three parts. The first dealt with the Declaration; the second with the Preamble to the Constitution; and the third with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

To call these three documents “the American testament” is to say that, together and in relation to one another, they are “like” the sacred scriptures of this nation.

From the first document, by the most careful interpretation and critical exegesis, we can derive the nation’s basic articles of political faith.

From the second, together with the articles that follow the Preamble and their subsequent amendments, we can come to understand the elaboration of those articles of political faith in terms of governmental aims, governmental structures, and governmental policies.

An equally careful reading of the third gives us, in spite of Lincoln’s incomparable brevity, a full, rich confirmation of our faith in government of the people, by the people, and for the people — the people who declared their independence, who formed a more perfect union, who resolved that that union would be perpetuated and that this nation would not perish from the earth. We are not only the heirs of those people, we are those people, and we are today engaged in celebrating our heritage.

Flag-waving, however sincere; public convocations, however well designed; and political oratory, however thoughtfully delivered, will not by themselves suffice to celebrate the event of this nation’s conception and birth, its two centuries of development, the civil crisis it survived nearly l40 years ago, and the long, prosperous, and progressive future for which we all hope.

As individual celebrants of this occasion, the personal obligation of every citizen of the United States is to understand as well as possible the three documents that are our American testament — words that should be piously revered even though they are not in a strict sense this country’s holy scriptures. This understanding occurs as a private accomplishment, not a public event. It is something done in the quiet of one’s own mind, with the solemnity of sober reflection.


There is an absence in our society today of statesmen or persons in public life of a caliber comparable to those who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787. Why, it may be asked, can we not find in a population so many times larger than the population of the thirteen original states a relatively small number who would be as qualified for the task as their predecessors?

I cannot give a satisfactory answer to this question except to say that the best minds in our much larger population do not go into politics as they did in the eighteenth century. Perhaps the much larger number of citizens in our present population are not nearly as well educated. Their minds are not as well cultivated and their characters not as well formed.

Even if a second constitutional convention were to assemble statesmen of a character comparable to those who met in Philadelphia in 1787, and even if that second convention could be conducted under circumstances favorable to a good result, the resulting constitution would not find a receptive and sympathetic audience among our present citizenry, to whom it would have to be submitted for adoption.

They would not have the kind of schooling that enabled them to understand its provisions and to appraise their worth. The vast majority would not even be able to read intelligently and critically the kind of arguments in favor of adopting the new constitution that were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, and published in current periodicals in the years 1787 and 1788.

A radical reform of basic schooling in the United States would have to precede any attempt by whatever means to improve our system of government through improving its Constitution.

That is also an indispensable prerequisite for making the degree of democracy we have so far achieved prosper, work better, or, perhaps, even survive.

We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster. Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

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