Happy Constitution Day!
We seem to celebrate something every single day in modern society. Today, for instance, we celebrate “National Apple Dumpling Day,” “National Monte Cristo Day,” and “Wife Appreciation Day.” But, today is also a day when we celebrate probably the single most important occurrence in American history. And, yet, few people know what today is and why it is so important to our nation.
It was on this day in 1787, after months cooped up in a hot, upstairs room in Philadelphia, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention voted on the final draft of the Constitution. No more momentous occurrence has ever happened in our—or for that matter, the world’s—political history. Although it took another 10 months for enough states to ratify the Constitution for it to become the supreme law of the land, and although Congress would begin its first session without a couple of states (North Carolina and Rhode Island wouldn’t enter the Union until late 1789 and mid-1790, respectively), September 17, 1787 will forever be remembered as the day we began what we know as the American Republic.
History is forever changed by this day. For in the Constitution we have the makings of the most democratic, inclusive, adaptable government the world has ever known. A document that gives us a blueprint for engaged citizenry, public debate on difficult and controversial topics without retribution for expressing an unpopular opinion, protection of minorities, and slow, thoughtful governance.
To hear people talk today, though, America is going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks-in-a-handbasket. A friend recently stated what I have heard over and over. “Everything is just going to shit here. The system is a racket, and it’s worse than ever before.”
I can’t abide this view. The truth is, as Akhil Reed Amar, possibly America’s most distinguished Constitutional scholar, argues, the Constitution is a document that has done nothing but increase democracy. We started out recognizing slavery, and allowing the subjugation of millions of people. The original document even allowed slaves to be treated as less than complete persons. But, through our rights of free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and freedom of the press, a national debate on the morality of slavery began simultaneously with the birth of the republic. We were so impassioned by the debate, we fought a war over slavery. Brothers fought brothers, parents disowned children, and families divided.
After the war, we didn’t go back to the same old system. We forgave the States that seceded, and allowed them back into the Union with peaceful voting. We amended our constitution, as it allows us to do, and created the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. With the Fourteenth Amendment, we guaranteed the right of citizenship to everyone born on US soil. This ensures no one else can ever be treated as less than a full citizen or less than a full person. To make sure the States didn’t go back to their old ways of denying rights established in the Bill of Rights to their newly freed citizens, the Fourteenth Amendment bound the States to provide equal rights to all persons.
When these same States ultimately skirted federal laws and created Jim Crow, the federal government went to work. Yes, it was a long, arduous process, and during these decades, many people were still subjugated by the ills of corrupted governments. But, America still debated, reported, prayed, and protested. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Strengthened democracy.
The problem of maltreatment of minority races continues today. But, Americans have not sat idly by. Americans continue to read, talk openly, debate, report, and protest. They continue to exercise their conscience. Americans continue to be, well, American, and seek better. All of this increases democracy.
Take any issue—gender equality, same sex marriage, freedom of expression, religious exercise, the list goes on and on—with every issue and at every turn, we have done nothing but increase freedom, and provide for more people to be engaged in our republic. We could improve nothing without the governmental structure of this short document and its two dozen or so amendments.
When you are worried about America and its democracy, just know that American history is a tale of one branch of government overreaching its bounds, and being reigned in by the other branches. That is what is has always been, and most certainly what it will always be.
Freedom is not an exact science. A diverse society will never be single-minded in its approach to problems and societal issues. While we may confront difficult issues, and disagree vehemently about them; while injustices may occur, and we may be slowed down by them, we are at least blessed with a form of government that is clear to everyone—written down in less than 8,000 words—that provides the opportunity for everyone to be heard, that allows us to protest and speak our mind, that permits us to recognize the errors of our ways and correct them. For America to continue to increase its strength, everyone should know what’s available to them in this amazing document—this Constitution—given to us on this day 230 years ago.