Our national conversation is too rarely enlightening or uplifting these days. Especially for those who yearn for some Lincoln-like or Webster-like quality in public debate. So the opportunity to take time and reflect on the strengths and virtues of our system is quite welcome.
In American life, we have all sorts of civic and cultural celebrations. Independence Day. Memorial Day. Presidents’ Day. Veterans’ Day. Labor Day. Flag Day. In this lineup, the Constitution is pretty much an afterthought. When was the last time someone wished you a happy Constitution Day? Or you saw stores advertising Constitution Day sales?
We hear from people and commentators who are thoroughly versed in pop culture and celebrity scandal, but who get a bit hazy when the subject turns to constitutional provisions and principles. Chances are that a lot of people who eagerly plow through the Harry Potter novels would say that our nation’s Constitution is too ponderous to read and understand. Thus, it is a valuable and essential civic service when organizations turn the spotlight on our nation’s wonderful foundational document.
A small group of men, acting without express authorization or any model to draw upon, fashioned a form of government that proved durable and functional beyond expectation. Such a document could probably not be done today. That much trust is not going to be given. The ability to operate in secrecy would not be tolerated. The tradeoffs would create a cottage industry of investigations and inquisitions.
They are many ways of looking at and appreciating the enduring work of the constitutional crafters. One of the best is this contrast – there are fewer words in the operating manual for our nation than in the typical vehicle owner’s operating manual. Yet, it is much harder to change health care than to change an air filter. And more involved to provide due process than to operate a DVD player.
When you look at our present inability to see six months ahead, with any clarity, it becomes all the more amazing how well the judgments of the Founding Fathers have held up.
It would be hard to arrange a better marriage of philosophy and practicality. The Constitution is durable enough to withstand incredible national challenges and crises, yet adaptable enough to accommodate issues the writers could not begin to imagine. Telecommunications bundling. Internet neutrality. Sexual harassment. Stem cell research. Technology advances, societal standards shift, science unlocks secrets, yet the Constitution crafted in 1787 remains relevant.
The terrible tragedy of 9/11 forced us to re-examine a lot of beliefs, assumptions, and institutions. It was a very painful way to bring about a national civics lesson.
The attackers tried to destroy the financial and political pillars of American society. But the outcome was quite different than they intended. Americans gained a new sense of national purpose. Americans came to a greater appreciation of the principles on which our nation is built. America looked to strengthen both national security and global security.
Just as the system of checks and balances keeps the three branches of government in kilter, so are there guards against ill-considered change.
When the economy is down, down, down, and when the challenges abroad seem more like quagmires, people get a notion about changing the way things run. All sorts of proposed amendments to the Constitution are offered. Some spark spirited debate. But few make much headway. When passions arise to go in and rewrite the 14th Amendment, to cite a topical example, it is blessedly not easily done. For good reason – most people believe the Constitution to be basically sound. Where those pushing change try to sell makeover, many people hear mischief.
One of the things that impressed the delegates as they wandered about Philadelphia was the diversity and the vitality of religious practice. No doubt this helped shape and set the freedom of religion provision. Parts of our nation seem in need of a refresher course on that aspect of the proceedings.
The late William Safire had a great admonition about the interplay of rights and responsibilities: “The right to do something does not automatically mean that doing it is right.” The fellow down in Florida who wants to make a spectacle of burning the Koran would do well to reflect on Safire’s point.
Just as we seek to promote civic education, so do we want to encourage civic engagement. The folks inspired to register and vote by Barack Obama’s presidential run seem to be sitting home again this cycle. We shall see if the Tea Party movement has more staying power than the other populist waves that have washed through American history. Anyone can stir up critics. It takes concentrated effort to convince people to constructively participate for the long haul.
Obviously, we have freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and although it is not specifically listed in the Bill of Rights, we have the freedom to hold perfectly contradictory views. We lament that too few register to vote, and even fewer actually make it to the polls. Then we criticize the choices those voters make.
We are fond of complaining about the size and cost and intrusiveness of government. But when we have a problem or need arise, we suddenly demand that government do something, do it quickly, and do it competently. And when someone wants to push combining or collapsing governments, people get up in arms about trampling tradition. A vital democracy can be messy in the day-to-day operation.
The Constitution was made possible by a series of grand compromises. Delegates eventually set aside personal beliefs and regional biases to reach a result in the national interest. The states ratified it. The system took root and blossomed.
Jack Kemp had a fabulous observation on the result: “Democracy is not a mathematical deduction proved once and for all time. Democracy is a just faith fervently held, a commitment to be tested time and again in the fiery furnace of history.”
The recession has shaken the faith of people in institutions and processes throughout our system. Many feel they cannot count on anything anymore. That is yet another reason that Constitution week events are timely and meaningful. In the words of an old gospel song, “through trial and triumph” the Constitution is there, dependably underpinning our glorious democracy. We should appreciate, and celebrate, this magnificent inheritance.
Contact: Jennifer Wilson