TO THE FIRST EDITION
The United States is at once a very new nation and a very old nation It is a new nation compared with many other countries, and it is new, too, in the sense that it is constantly being renewed by the addition of new elements of population and of new States But in other senses it is old It is the oldest of the "new" nations--the first one to be made out of an Old Wor1d colony It has the oldest written constitution, the oldest continuous federal system, and the oldest practice of self-government of any nation.
One of the most interesting features of America's youth is that the whole of its history belongs in the period Since the invention of the printing press The whole of its history is therefore, recorded; indeed, it is safe to say that no other major nation has so comprehensive a record of its history as has the United States for events such as those that are lost in the legendary past of Italy or France or England are part of the printed record of the United States. And the American record is not only comprehensive, it is immense. It embraces not only the record of the colonial era and of the Nation since 1776, but of the present fifty States as well, and the intricate network of relationships between States and Nation. Thus, to take a very elementary example, the reports of the United States Supreme Court fill some 350 volumes, and the records of some States are almost equally voluminous; the reader who wants to trace the history of law in America is confronted with over 5,000 stout volumes of legal cases.
No one document, no handful of documents, can properly be said to reveal the character of a people or of their government. But when hundreds and thousands of documents strike a consistent note, over more than a hundred years, we have a right to say that that is the keynote. When hundreds and thousand of documents address themselves in the same ways, to the same overarching problems, we have a right to read from them certain conclusions which we can call national characteristics.
The historic documents presented here have been chosen not to illustrate particular traits of national character, but for their intrinsic importance. Yet who that reads them can doubt that they did, in fact, illustrate some pervasive traits of character, some dominant and persistent preoccupations? What are some of the preoccupations, or some of the traits of character, that we can fairly read out of these documents?
First, that men make government, that government comes from below, not above, that its purpose is to advance the happiness and the welfare of men and that it has, in the long run, no other or higher purpose.
Second, that government so constructed is a limited government--limited in its power, and in the scope of its power. That there are some things government cannot do, some areas where it may not enter.
Third, that the most effective method of limiting government is by law, that all government should be government under the law and by the law; that no men or institutions are above the law.
Fourth, that in a highly complex society, made up of many states and many peoples, it is essential to formalize governmental arrangements. That the nature and power of government therefore should be set forth in written constitutions, that these constitutions are paramount, that their provisions are to be judged by courts, and that the decisions of courts are to be respected and observed by all branches of government and all elements of society.
Fifth, that such principles as self--government, or freedom, or social welfare, are not static but dynamic, that each generation will broaden its concept of the nature of these principles, that the function of government is to enable society to enlarge the areas of self-government, of freedom, and of social welfare.
Sixth, that just as no man is an island unto himself, so no nation is an island unto itself, but part of a
larger community of nations, that the United States is peculiarly dependent on and related to other peoples and other nations; that it has obligations to the community of nations which it cannot ignore and which it must and does fulfill.
Seventh, that all government--and indeed all social activities--are part of a moral order; that they rest upon moral principles and standards; and that to be valid they must be consistent with that order and observe those standards.
Henry Steele Commager