Sept. 17 is Constitution Day by act of Congress, which passed a law in the hope schools would take the time to teach about the history and the philosophy of that venerable document.
I fear the day is observed mostly in the breach. Too bad. To my way of thinking, ignorance of the Constitution and apathy regarding its principles underlies much of what troubles us today.
I’m not speaking of the philosophical disputation over whether the Constitution is a “living” document subject to reinterpretation each generation or a “timeless” writing with words that mean the same today as in 1787. While I come down firmly on the latter side, I welcome the intellectual stimulation gained from listening in while the great legal minds debate each other on this.
We too quickly dismiss the herculean effort expended at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to compose a document that rose above the sectional and special interest squabbling which affected that generation much like it does ours today. But persevere they did and left us a masterpiece.
The Constitution is important to more than just Americans. There is no gainsaying that our Constitution has served other nations as a model for their own efforts to secure the blessings of liberty. Allow me to use the example of France, with a caveat or two.
France’s record is soiled at best, given the French Revolution’s descent into bloodshed and dictatorship. Its subsequent history is one of such instability in terms of its governmental structure that its current form is officially styled the Fifth French Republic.
The reason I chose France for comment is something I read in a magazine I take, one edited and published in France but in the English language. The editor wrote in his recent column about Bastille Day, his Fourth of July. He spoke about the rallying cry of liberty, equality and fraternity. His point was that liberty and equality can be enshrined in law but fraternity can only dwell in the heart. He despaired as to how our hearts today are closed to anything resembling fraternity.
Perhaps he fears the world’s descent into the abyss of anarchy or mobocracy. The ancient Greek historian Polybius instructs us that the next step in the cycle of governments following anarchy is followed by rule by one, at first modestly constrained but then rapidly devolving into dictatorship. France suffered through this as the American-inspired, democratic ideals of La Fayette and others were buried beneath increasing radicalism and rivers of blood. Will Robespierre become the patron saint of the Cancel Culture mob?
No matter how benighted our current day seems, September 17 should be a day of pride and rededication — pride in what arguably is the most perfect governance document ever written and rededication to the principles which serve as its foundation.
Paper documents express our aspirations and our mutual compact, our covenant on how we will act toward each other and in concert with each other. But the heart is what matters. That is what caught my eye in the French magazine’s editorial. It can’t be legislated, the French editor said; it must spring forth on its own.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. His words, and the ideals behind them, served as wet nurse to the Constitution. But do we still believe this? If the world sees us as apostates on the doctrine of liberty, have we robbed others of hope?
Why has our society suddenly found problems coming to grips with the simple fact that our nation was created by brilliant but imperfect men, truly the greatest generation in our history in spite of their flaws? Flaws are part of the human condition yet somehow we continue on. The neo-puritans who insist on perfection from our predecessors, on their subjective standards of course, will have their day too, if not soon then by a future generation which will apply its subjective standards to the past and find our 21st century cultural barbarians wanting.
Will we survive as a “city on a hill,” a term used by presidents Reagan and Kennedy as well as colonial leader John Winthrop and borrowed from Jesus’ Sermon the Mount (Matthew 5:14)? Or will our republic end up on the “ash heap of history,” to borrow another one of President Reagan’s quotes.
But I remind myself of my own premise for this Constitution Day, that it be one of pride and rededication, so I end with the preamble to the Constitution. Its clear language bears no improvement.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.”