Address on Constitution Day
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
September 17, 1937
My Fellow Americans:
One hundred fifty years ago tonight, thirty-eight weary delegates to
a Convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution. Four
handwritten sheets of parchment were enough to state the terms on
which thirteen independent weak little republics agreed to try to
survive together as one strong nation.
A third of the original delegates had given up and gone home. The
moral force of Washington and Franklin had kept the rest together.
Those remained who cared the most; and caring most, dared most..
The world of 1787 provided a perfect opportunity for the
organization of a new form of government thousands of miles removed
from influences hostile to it. How we then governed ourselves did
not greatly concern Europe. And what occurred in Europe did not
immediately affect us.
Today the picture is different.
Now what we do has enormous immediate effect not only among the
nations of Europe but also among those of the Americas and the Far
East, and what in any part of the world they do as surely and
quickly affects us.
In such an atmosphere our generation has watched democracies replace
monarchies which had failed their people, and dictatorships displace
democracies which had failed to function. And of late we have heard
a clear challenge to the democratic idea of representative
We do not deny that the methods of the challengers— whether they be
called "communistic" or "dictatorial" or "military"have obtained for
many who live under them material things they did not obtain under
democracies which they had failed to make function. Unemployment has
been lessened, even though the cause is a mad manufacturing of
armaments. Order prevails, even though maintained by fear, at the
expense of liberty and individual rights.
So their leaders laugh at all constitutions, predict the copying of
their own methods, and prophesy the early end of democracy ·
throughout the world.
Both that attitude and that prediction are denied by those of us who
still believe in democracy— that is, by the overwhelming majority of
the nations of the world and by the overwhelming majority of the
people of the world.
And the denial is based on two reasons eternally right.
The first reason is that modern men and women will not tamely commit
to one man or one group the permanent conduct of their government.
Eventually they will insist not only on the right to choose who
shall govern them, but also upon the periodic reconsideration of
that choice by the free exercise of the ballot.
And the second reason is that the state of world affairs brought
about by those new forms of government threatens civilization.
Armaments and deficits pile up together. Trade barriers multiply and
merchant ships are threatened on the high seas. Fear spreads
throughout the world, fear of aggression, fear of invasion, fear of
revolution, fear of death.
The people of America are rightly determined to keep that growing
menace from our shores.
The known and measurable danger of becoming involved in war we face
confidently. As to that, your government knows your mind, and you
know your government's mind.
But it takes even more foresight, intelligence and patience to meet
the subtle attack which spreading dictatorship makes upon the morale
of a democracy.
In our generation, a new idea has come to dominate thought about
government, the idea that the resources of the nation can be made to
produce a far higher standard of living for the masses of the people
if only government is intelligent and energetic in giving the right
direction to economic life.
That idea—or more properly that ideal—is wholly justified by the
facts. It cannot be thrust aside by those who want to go back to the
conditions of ten years ago or even preserve the conditions of
today. It puts all forms of government to their proof.
That ideal makes understandable the demands of labor for shorter
hours and higher wages, the demands of farmers for a more stable
income, the demands of the great majority of business men for relief
from disruptive trade practices, the demands of all for the end of
that kind of license, often mistermed "Liberty," which permits a
handful of the population to take far more than its tolerable share
from the rest of the people.
And as other forms of government in other lands parade their
pseudo-science of economic organization, even some of our own people
may wonder whether democracy can match dictatorship in giving this
generation the things it wants from government.
We have those who really fear the majority rule of democracy, who
want old forms of economic and social control to remain in a few
hands. They say in their hearts: "If constitutional democracy
continues to threaten our control why should we be against a
plutocratic dictatorship if that would perpetuate our control?"
And we have those who are in too much of a hurry, who are impatient
at the processes of constitutional democracies, who want Utopia
overnight and are not sure that some vague form of proletarian
dictatorship is not the quickest road to it.
Both types are equally dangerous. One represents cold-blooded
resolve to hold power. We have engaged in a definite, and so far
successful, contest against that. The other represents a reckless
resolve to seize power. Equally we are against that.
And the overwhelming majority of the American people fully
understand and completely approve that course as the course of the
present government of the United States.
To hold to that course our constitutional democratic form of
government must meet the insistence of the great mass of our people
that economic and social security and the standard of American
living be raised from what they are to levels which the people know
our resources justify.
Only by succeeding in that can we ensure against internal doubt as
to the worthwhileness of our democracy and dissipate the illusion
that the necessary price of efficiency is dictatorship with its
attendant spirit of aggression.
That is why I have been saying for months that there is a crisis in
American affairs which demands action now, a crisis particularly
dangerous because its external and internal difficulties reenforce
Purposely I paint a broad picture. For only if the problem is seen
in perspective can we see its solution in perspective.
I am not a pessimist. I believe that democratic government in this
country can do all the things which common-sense people, seeing that
picture as a whole, have the right to expect. I believe that these
things can be done under the Constitution, without the surrender of
a single one of the civil and religious liberties it was intended to
And I am determined that under the Constitution these things shall
The men who wrote the Constitution were the men who fought the
Revolution. They had watched a weak emergency government almost lose
the war, and continue economic distress among thirteen little
republics, at peace but without effective national government.
So when these men planned a new government, they drew the kind of
agreement which men make when they really want to work together
under it for a very long time.
For the youngest of nations they drew what is today the oldest
written instrument under which men have continuously lived together
as a nation.
The Constitution of the United States was a layman's document, not a
lawyer's contract. That cannot be stressed too often. Madison, most
responsible for it, was not a lawyer; nor was Washington or
Franklin, whose sense of the give-and-take of life had kept the
This great layman's document was a charter of general principles,
completely different from the "whereases" and the "parties of the
first part" and the fine print which lawyers put into leases and
insurance policies and installment agreements.
When the Framers were dealing with what they rightly considered
eternal verities, unchangeable by time and circumstance, they used
specific language. In no uncertain terms, for instance, they forbade
titles of nobility, the suspension of habeas corpus and the
withdrawal of money from the Treasury except after appropriation by
law. With almost equal definiteness they detailed the Bill of
But when they considered the fundamental powers of the new national
government they used generality, implication and statement of mere
objectives, as intentional phrases which flexible statesmanship of
the future, within the Constitution, could adapt to time and
circumstance. For instance, the framers used broad and general
language capable of meeting evolution and change when they referred
to commerce between the States, the taxing power and the general
Even the Supreme Court was treated with that purposeful lack of
specification. Contrary to the belief of many Americans, the
Constitution says nothing about any power of the Court to declare
legislation unconstitutional; nor does it mention the number of
judges for the Court. Again and again the Convention voted down
proposals to give Justices of the Court a veto over legislation.
Clearly a majority of the delegates believed that the relation of
the Court to the Congress and the Executive, like the other subjects
treated in general terms, would work itself out by evolution and
change over the years.
But for one hundred and fifty years we have had an unending struggle
between those who would preserve this original broad concept of the
Constitution as a layman's instrument of government and those who
would shrivel the Constitution into a lawyer's contract.
Those of us who really believe in the enduring wisdom of the
Constitution hold no rancor against those who professionally or
politically talk and think in purely legalistic phrases. We cannot
seriously be alarmed when they cry "unconstitutional" at every
effort to better the condition of our people.
Such cries have always been with us; and, ultimately, they have
always been overruled.
Lawyers distinguished in 1787 insisted that the Constitution itself
was unconstitutional under the Articles of Confederation. But the
ratifying conventions overruled them.
Lawyers distinguished in their day warned Washington and Hamilton
that the protective tariff was unconstitutional, warned Jefferson
that the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional, warned Monroe that
to open up roads across the Alleghenies was unconstitutional. But
the Executive. and the Congress overruled them.
Lawyers distinguished in their day persuaded a divided Supreme Court
that the Congress had no power to govern slavery in the territories,
that the long-standing Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. But
a War Between the States overruled them. —
Lawyers distinguished in their day persuaded the Odd Man on the
Supreme Court that the methods of financing the Civil War were
unconstitutional. But a new Odd Man overruled them.
That great Senatorial constitutional authority of his day, Senator
Evarts, issued a solemn warning that the proposed Interstate
Commerce Act and the Federal regulation of railway rates which the
farmers demanded would be unconstitutional. But both the Senate and
the Supreme Court overruled him.
Less than two years ago fifty-eight of the highest priced lawyers in
the land gave the Nation (without cost to the Nation) a solemn and
formal opinion that the Wagner Labor Relations Act was
unconstitutional. And in a few months, first a national election and
later the Supreme Court overruled them.
For twenty years the Odd Man on the Supreme Court refused to admit
that State minimum wage laws for women were constitutional. A few
months ago, after my message to the Congress on the rejuvenation of
the Judiciary, the Odd Man admitted that the Court had been
wrong—for all those twenty years—and overruled himself.
In this constant struggle the lawyers of no political party, mine or
any other, have had a consistent or unblemished record. But the lay
rank and file of political parties has had a consistent record.
Unlike some lawyers, they have respected as sacred all branches of
their government. They have seen nothing more sacred about one
branch than about either of the others. They have considered as most
sacred the concrete welfare of the generation of the day. And with
laymen's common sense of what government is for, they have demanded
that all three branches be efficient, that all three be
interdependent as well as independent, and that all three work
together to meet the living generation's expectations of government.
That lay rank and file can take cheer from the historic fact that
every effort to construe the Constitution as a lawyer's contract
rather than a layman's charter has ultimately failed. Whenever
legalistic interpretation has clashed with contemporary sense on
great questions of broad national policy, ultimately the people and
the Congress have had their way. But that word "ultimately" covers a
It cost a Civil War to gain recognition of the constitutional power
of the Congress to legislate for the territories.
It cost twenty years of taxation on those least able to pay to
recognize the constitutional power of the Congress to levy taxes on
those most able to pay.
It cost twenty years of exploitation of women's labor to recognize
the constitutional power of the States to pass minimum wage laws for
It has cost twenty years already—and no one knows how many more are
to come- to obtain a constitutional interpretation that will let the
Nation regulate the shipment in national commerce of goods sweated
from the labor of little children.
We know it takes time to adjust government to the needs of society.
But modern history proves that reforms too long delayed or denied
have jeopardized peace, undermined democracy and swept away civil
and religious liberties. —-"
Yes, time more than ever before is vital in statesmanship and in
government, in all three branches of it.
We will no longer be permitted to sacrifice each generation in turn
while the law catches up with life.
We can no longer afford the luxury of twenty-year lags.
You will find no justification in any of the language of the
Constitution for delay in the reforms which the mass of the American
people now demand.
Yet nearly every attempt to meet those demands for social and
economic betterment has been jeopardized or actually forbidden by
those who have sought to read into the Constitution language which
the framers refused to write into the Constitution.
No one cherishes more deeply than I the civil and religious
liberties achieved by so much blood and anguish through the many
centuries of Anglo-American history. But the Constitution guarantees
liberty, not license masquerading as liberty.
Let me put the real situation in the simplest terms. The present
government of the United States has never taken away and never will
take away any liberty from any minority, unless it be a minority
which so abuses its liberty as to do positive and definite harm to
its neighbors constituting the majority. But the government of the
United States refuses to forget that the Bill of Rights was put into
the Constitution not only to protect minorities against intolerance
of majorities, but to protect majorities against the enthronement of
Nothing would so surely destroy the substance of what the Bill of
Rights protects than its perversion to prevent social progress. The
surest protection of the individual and of minorities is that
fundamental tolerance and feeling for fair play which the Bill of
Rights assumes. But tolerance and fair play would disappear here as
it has in some other lands if the great mass of people were denied
confidence in their justice, their security and their self-respect.
Desperate people in other lands surrendered their liberties when
freedom came merely to mean humiliation and starvation. The crisis
of 1933 should make us understand that.
On this solemn anniversary I ask that the American people rejoice in
the wisdom of their Constitution.
I ask that they guarantee the effectiveness of each of its parts by
living by the Constitution as a whole.
I ask that they have faith in its ultimate capacity to work out the
problems of democracy, but that they justify that faith by making it
work now rather than twenty years from now.
I ask that they give their fealty to the Constitution itself and not
to its misinterpreters.
I ask that they exalt the glorious simplicity of its purposes,
rather than a century of complicated legalism.
I ask that majorities and minorities subordinate intolerance and
power alike to the common good of all.
For us the Constitution is a common bond, without bitterness, for
those who see America as Lincoln saw it, "the last, best hope of
So we revere it, not because it is old but because it is ever new,
not in the worship of its past alone but in the faith of the living
who keep it young, now and in the years to come.
Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Address on Constitution Day,
Washington, D.C.," September 17, 1937. Online by Gerhard Peters and
John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15459 .