Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution and Citizenship Day

Celebrated: in the United States, informally since 1787, officially since 2004

On this date in 1787, the Constitutional Convention of the United States completed its work in Philadelphia, after four months of contentious debate. Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the four-page document stands as the supreme law of the land, although it has been amended 27 times.

Benjamin Franklin was 81 years old on the last day of the Constitutional Convention, but not too old to be an essential part of the process. Before the signing of the final draft, he had some last comments on the document - and because he was too frail to deliver them himself, he wrote them out for his colleague, James Wilson, to read aloud.
". . . I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good."
The complete text of Franklin's remarks is here. I want to print them out and hand them to every elected official in Washington and Augusta, highlighting that last phrase: I sacrifice to the public good. What is citizenship, after all, but the agreement to surrender a certain measure of wealth and autonomy in order to be part of a community larger, stronger and more lasting than oneself?

The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are "We the People." Not "Each of us," not "I, the undersigned," not even "The United States." We, the people. And what do we the people propose to do with this Constitution? Come on, sing it with me:

  • Establish justice
  • Ensure domestic tranquility
  • Provide for the common defense
  • Promote the general welfare
  • Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

Constitution Day has been an official observance in the United States since 2004, when Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) slipped it into the omnibus spending bill. On this day, all publicly funded educational institutions must offer educational programming about the U.S. Constitution and its history. Whether you're still in school or not, take 15 minutes to reread it today. You might be surprised at what you find.

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