Thursday marked the 222nd anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. Sept. 17, 1787, is a day worth celebrating, and remembering, as one of the most important moments in American history.
The drama surrounding our country’s birth was anything but peaceful. Waging and winning the Revolutionary War in 1783 and forming a new government amounted to a “David and Goliath” moment – intense, courageous and consequential. The fledgling American colonists took on the massive British Empire, declaring independence – fighting for it – and then achieving victory. Winning independence and securing the peace required foresight and planning, for the colonists were unsure about the longevity of their young nation. After all, settling a vast new land, with no fully developed economy, trade relations or stature throughout the world, was a monumental task for the Founders.
A first order of business was creating a lasting governing document. Having operated under the authority of the Articles of Confederation after 1776, national independence required something more. The Constitutional Convention that convened in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia was largely held for one important purpose – to devise a new charter in the postwar environment. Delegates from all 13 original states met throughout the humid Philadelphia summer to debate and discuss what kind of government America would have. Delegates’ frustration with the dominance of England, from which the colonists had declared independence, and recognition that the new nation must have cohesion and common purpose, led to lengthy debates that magnified regional differences and political distinctions. What emerged was a compromise document providing for some government, but not too much; recognizing the importance of states’ rights and individual freedoms, but establishing a national system of law, checks and balances, and separation of powers. That model resulted in the longest surviving national constitution in history.
Many of those who helped draft the Constitution emerged, and remain, as some of America’s finest leaders in history – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison. Washington is “summoned” to the presidency by the people – and serves two terms with distinction and honor, declaring the importance of the “great constitutional charter” in his first inaugural address, delivered from the steps of Federal Hall in New York.
Inaugural addresses delivered by 35 of 44 presidents over the following two centuries mention the importance of the U.S. Constitution, but modern presidents give little attention to its significance in the conduct of the nation’s affairs. As a consequence, studies show that students today – and Americans generally – are not schooled in the basics of American constitutional history or principles.
Until the late 1960s, some public schools presented graduates with a copy of the Constitution. For years, W. H. Cowles, publisher of The Spokesman-Review, gave each graduating high school senior a complimentary book on the Constitution by Thomas James Norton, noting inside the front cover the following inscription:
This book, “The Constitution of the United States – Its Sources and Its Application,” is presented to you, in the hope that it will give you a better understanding and appreciation of your great heritage as a citizen of the United States of America.
In the initial pages of the book, first published in 1941, the signatures of prominent national leaders, such as Herbert C. Hoover and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, appear below the following message:
“Menaced by collectivist trends, we must seek revival of our strength in the spiritual foundations which are the bedrock of our republic. Democracy is the outgrowth of the religious conviction of the sacredness of every human life. On the religious side, its highest embodiment is the Bible; on the political, the Constitution. As has been said so well, ‘The Constitution is the civil bible of Americans.’ Next to the Bible, the best book on the Constitution should be in every home, school, library and parish hall.”
Now is an appropriate starting point for dedicated constitutional study by all Americans, particularly students, who are our country’s future leaders. Knowing about our Constitution and its principles makes us more discerning voters and more discriminating citizens concerning public policy issues. Appreciating the exciting story of the United States and the noble sacrifices of Americans who died defending the Constitution over generations will help perpetuate the precious liberties we hold so dear.
Read the U.S. Constitution as you reflect on its creation. There is no more honorable way to pay tribute to the Founders who gathered in Philadelphia 222 years ago to build the magnificent legacy of the most successful government known to mankind.