We celebrate September 17 as Constitution Day, marking the day in 1787 when delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution of the United States in Philadelphia.
I remember when I first studied this great document. You couldn’t graduate from the eighth grade in the Chicago Public Schools without passing an exam on the Constitutions of the United States and the State of Illinois. In class of O’Keeffe Elementary I was fascinated by the text and the little we learned of the history. And I have remained impressed today, after much more detailed study in college and graduate school, and as I teach First Amendment law to young journalists.
But the unabashed awe of my young years has been tempered over time by the knowledge that the nation did not live up to the words, even in the time they were written. And the noble cause our Constitution represents seems to have been forgotten by so many, especially those who strive to be our political leaders. In grade school, we memorized the preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
As my teachers used to say, compare and contrast. The opening words of England’s Great Charter, the Magna Carta, are “JOHN, by the grace of God King of England….” clearly state that the rights the document bestows on various classes of Englishmen, specifically the nobles and clergy, are the King’s to give. “We, the People…” echos the words of the Declaration of Independence, which refer to the United States of America as “one People”, and is something quite different. James Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution, wrote in Federalist No. 49, “As the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived . . . .”
We lament our current government, where the checks and balances purposely created, with all their ambiguities, by the framers of the Constitution, seem to have failed. And we tend to blame the government. Yes, Congress under the control of Republicans appears to have abdicated its responsibility to monitor and restrain the excesses of the Executive. Yes, the President seems to have forgotten that his oath of office is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and that the members of his administration swear allegiance not to him but to that same Constitution. And yes, the Supreme Court, which likes to hold itself up as the arbiter of the law and not a writer of same, and says it concedes to the elected branches the right of authorship, has nonetheless in a series of 5-4 decisions thrown out legislation produced as a result of years of negotiation between the political parties.
The system seems to have failed.
The framers never thought the document they signed 231 years ago today was perfect. They never even thought it was complete. Prescient though many of them were, their wildest dreams could not have anticipated a nation stretching more than 2,500 miles from coast to coast. One where you could have breakfast in any location and be anywhere else in time for dinner. A world where Europe was just hours away and communication was instantaneous. Where weapons had huge destructive power and decisions on their use had to be made in minutes. And where movement between the states was as trivial as walking across a street.
Nor would they have contemplated a nation where women had suffrage. Or where the slaves were free.
But they did contemplate a world where the people must always be on guard least weak and corrupt members of the political class forget the guiding principal that sovereignty, in their new nation, resides in the people.
Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” In truth, the buck travels further. It stops with us, each and every one of us. And we are not living up to that responsibility. Read and weep:
This chart, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, shows voter participation rates in the major industrialized nations of the world. I’ve highlighted the US. We may be the cradle of democracy, but we’re not doing much to support it.
Yes, it is an uphill battle. We have to face the Electoral College, gerrymandering of legislative districts, voter suppression efforts and a massive amount of scandalous political advertising, often funded by the who-knows-who-or-what of the so-called “dark money,” loaded with half truths and out and out lies. We have to face a constant flood of disinformation coming from some elected officials and many media outlets.
But we have to try.
It is said that Benjamin Franklin, another major contributor to the Constitution, upon leaving the meeting hall on the day the document was signed was stopped by a lady who asked, “Well Doctor, what have we got. A Republic or a monarch?” “A Republic,” Dr. Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”
Let’s keep it.
Honor our Constitution on this Constitution Day. Look up the location of your polling place. Check your registration. And mark your calendar with the note to vote on November 6th.