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The Editor offers no apology for presenting to the public an annotated copy of the Constitution of the United States. All men have fully realized the maxim, “that the next best thing to knowledge is to know where to find it.” If, therefore, my book shall serve as a guide to useful and important information, a good work will have been accomplished. But it is believed that something better than the mere collection of copious references has been attained. The best definitions of every word and phrase have been given, upon the very highest authorities. The utility of such a success, if success it be, cannot be over-estimated.
The roots of the Constitution of the United States may be said to have been laid in the great principles of the English Constitution, which divided government into three separate departments, and which, from time to time, secured the absolute and subordinate rights of every subject, upon the firm basis of Magna Charta and the Petitions and Bills of Rights, and other guaranties of liberty. These principles were transplanted by our ancestors into the American colonies. They were proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, which, in this edition, precedes the great work of our fathers; and they were re-incorporated into all the State Constitutions pending the Revolution. Therefore, the division of the powers of government into three departments—legislative, executive, and judicial-was the formation of a structure upon established models.
From the days of the promulgation of the Constitution of the United States to the present hour, it has been a subject of constant discussion. All that was preserved of the debates of the wise men of the Con. vention which modeled it, and of the State Conventions which ratified it; all that was said by the writers, such as the authors of the Federalist, and the press of that day, has been republished, and forms a popular portion of our current literature.
Rawle, Sergeant, Story, Baldwin, Duane, John Adams, and Farrar, have written their commentaries upon the Constitution ; Curtis his excellent history of it; Calhoun his essay, giving the peculiar views of his school upon concurrent powers ; Chancellor Kent devoted the best book in his great work to its elucidation; all our reports of judicial precedents abound with interpretations of it; the published opinions of learned Attorney-Generals have guided cabinets; the debates of all deliberative bodies are interspersed with closely studied or loosely expressed ideas in regard to it; every political editor and orator become its expositors; it is taught in all our law schools and many of our colleges, and forms a chapter in the studies of all candidates for the bar; all officers are sworn to support it; every soldier and sailor in the late war took a like oath as a condition of enlistment; all amnestied and pardoned rebels have been required to take oaths to support and defend the Constitution and the Union thereunder; and, in those States which resisted it, no one is admitted to be registered as a voter, without taking the most solemn oath to the like effect; every naturalized foreigner is required to swear allegiance to it; the oaths thus administered, as the ligament or tie of allegiance, are naturally binding upon every nativeborn citizen in the country. And now, although the sacred instrument has been published in every revision of laws in the United States, in the Manuals of Congress, and by tens of thousands in that excellent vademecum by Mr. Hickey, we hazard nothing in saying that the Constitution is not conveniently accessible to one in one hundred of the people whose duty it is to read it. It is not even a book in all our public libraries ; it is not in one house in fifty ; it is nowhere on the catalogue of school-books; and it is not taught in one school in a thousand. There is a kind of popular fallacy that everybody understands the Constitution of his country, when, truth to confess, comparatively few have ever read it at all, and still fewer have studied it carefully. And if the tenure of office depended upon the ability to stand a careful examination upon it, there would be enough vacancies to satisfy whole armies of "outs," who, in turn, could not take the oath to support it, were the previous test of ability to give all its features applied.
It is in no spirit of disparagement that we make this admission. Perhaps the same remark is applicable, to a greater or less extent, to every civilized people. There is too great a disposition among men to take essential things for granted. And yet when the philosophical historian comes to review the downfall of republics and empires, he is forced to the conclusion that the loss of liberty is more the result of ignorance of the fundamental principles of government than of apathy in defending them. The most exciting political contests which have divided this nation have been the results of political dogmas founded in willful or actual ignorance of the cardinal principles of the Constitution. A recurrence to "Americans shall rule America;" the “repeal of the naturalization laws," as a means of lessening suffrage; religious tests; “squatter sovereignty,” and its opposite, need only be cited in illustration. Yet these were harmless polemics compared to the heresy of that peculiar school of “State sovereignty,” which taught that the States had, in fact, surrendered nothing, but had only delegated certain powers, in trust, to a common agent; and that any State could, at any time, for any cause, or no cause, resume the delegated powers, and again peaceably take its place among the nations of the earth.