Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constitution Day

Monday is the 225th anniversary of the day our nation's founders signed their names to the final draft of the Constitution. On Friday I spoke to a gym full of elementary and middle-school students (and some parents) at my son's school's Constitution Day program. I didn't do a ton of research for it, but I did give considerable thought to how to address such a wide range of ages. The following is more-or-less what I came up with.

We celebrate the Constitution because it is the set of rules that the founders of the United States worked out and agreed on 225 years ago – when our country was brand new, and no one was sure yet that we wouldn’t fall apart.

They did an amazing job. They agreed to rules on how we would elect our leaders, how we would write and approve and carry out laws, how we would pay for it, and how the states would continue to interact with each other.

The founders wanted a central government strong enough to create an army and navy to defend us from foreign enemies, but not one so strong that it could be just as oppressive as the King of England had been.

Who can tell me how many branches of government the Constitution set up? And what are they? Good. And why is it important that we have THREE? Right. For balance. So no ONE gets too strong.

Which one do you think they were most afraid would get too strong?

I think you’re right. Most of the rest of the world at this time had an Executive Branch led by a king, or a czar, or a Sultan, who ultimately had all the final authority over whatever legislature and certainly whatever courts existed.

The power and independence given to our judicial branch to overturn legislation or to prevent the executive branch from enacting it – to declare it unconstitutional – is one of the things that really set the United States apart, certainly back then. And that is where the ACLU often comes in, by the way – sometimes Congress, or a state legislature, will pass a law that they THINK is solving some problem, but along the way that law is also depriving people of their rights, or treating some people differently than it treats other people. And when one of those people who have been hurt – even unintentionally – comes to the ACLU for help, the ACLU sends a lawyer to ask a judge to interpret the constitution and decide if that law is unconstitutional, at no charge to the person who was hurt. The ACLU helps make the system work the way it was designed.

So 225 years ago this week, on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention finished their work and signed it, and sent it back to the state legislatures of the 13 states – because the states all had to accept, or ratify it – or else what good would it do? And that took another year and a half.

Was it perfect? What do you think was the biggest problem that it left in place?

Yes, I think most people agree that the answer to that question is Slavery. In 1787 some states allowed slavery and some didn’t, and the Constitution compromised by allowing it to remain in place. It took 90 years and a civil war to fix that.

What did the Constitution say about who could vote? Ah, IT DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING! At the time, it was customary and assumed that only men who owned property had the right to vote. Not until after the Civil War did we amend the Constitution to specify that the black men – but only the men – who had been freed from slavery could vote. And when were women allowed to vote? Anyone? Right, not for another fifty years after that, in 1920.

So, the Constitution is a living document, that still works because we’ve amended it when necessary – but not really all that often – for 225 years.

In fact, the first ten amendments were done immediately, and all at once … and who can tell me what those ten amendments are called?

Yes, the Bill of Rights.

Whereas the original Articles of the Constitution deal with the powers and limits of powers of the branches of government, and the relationship between the states and the federal government, they don’t talk much about the rights of the People.

So that’s mostly what the first ten amendment did – list freedoms that the government could not take away from the people. And we just heard a great presentation from the second graders on what those rights were.

So, the Constitution in general, and the Bill of Rights in particular --
Defend the people from the government;
Defend the weak from the strong; and
Defend minorities from the majority.

Take note. What are the first three words of the Constitution? Yes, “We the People.” And the Bill of Rights consistently refers to The People. All the people. Not just white male landowners, not “citizens.” The People. True, in 1787, women (and men who didn't own homes) couldn’t vote, but they still had free speech, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury. The government couldn't search them without a warrant or force them to let soldiers live in their homes.

The Bill of Rights also introduces the concept of due process, which courts later extended from just matters of trial by jury, to all dealings with government – the idea of equality under the law.

It’s an election year, and candidates are falling all over themselves to convince us that they believe America is the greatest country on earth, and that they are the MOST PROUD to be an American.

America is indeed a great country, and I feel proud AND blessed to live here. One of the things that makes America great is that we are a huge country, rich in natural resources, and relatively safe across two oceans from most of the troubles of the rest of the world. I feel blessed by that, but not particularly proud – any more than I’m “proud” that I’m six feet tall. Being six feet tall is an advantage, but it’s not something I worked to achieve.

I think what really makes America great is the 225 years of upholding this Constitution and its principles, and working to extend freedom and equality -- liberty and justice -- to ALL PEOPLE. That’s something to be proud of.

So go be proud Americans. And be Americans we can all be proud of.

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