This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
Still got a hangover from too much ale at that Constitution Day holiday gala last Thursday?
Got those annual Sept. 17 resolutions in hand this today, promising to do better to your fellow citizens and the nation in the upcoming year?
And how about those wild and wacky Constitution Day parades down the streets of major cities, those big balloons of Washington, Jefferson and Ben Franklin bobbing in the wind, in front of mobbing school-age children and their parents?
Yeah, a little sarcasm goes a long way … perhaps too far. But no apology here. As a group — whether Trumpists or progressives, liberals or conservatives, stay-at-home couch potatoes or in-the-street protesters — yet another Constitution Day has passed with little or no recognition from virtually all of us, save for legions of brave teachers and their charges, who are required by law to take note, and a few steadfast annual revelers in orbit around the legal profession.
Granted, from the start it was not going to be any Labor Day, with its built-in working person constituency; or a July 4th extravaganza. And certainly, nobody ever envisioned that a scattered gaggle of old guys wearing powdered wigs and convening to the accompaniment of harpsicord music would compete with Santa, gifts for all and his bag of blaring Christmas carols.
Constitution Day is not easy to celebrate. I mean, who knows all the lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Delegates” or the rest of the words to “Deck the Halls and Vote on Article Three?” Toe-tappers to be sure, but somehow left off The New York Times’s list of 18 most-popular holiday tunes.
Most really big holidays have a theme. Christmas — joy. New Year’s — hope. Memorial Day — reflection (OK, and the Indy 500). July 4 — freedom. Thanksgiving — well, thanksgiving.
Constitution Day is another challenge altogether. A time for sober reflection on the path charted for our self-governing nation, following a failed attempt to operate under the Articles of Confederation, adopted only after a bitter fight over such pulse-pounding items as devising a system of checks and balances. (Right there, “sober” is a hurdle not faced on many of the competing holidays. And no, the discussion was not whether the nation’s official checks would be light blue or light green, or how much money we should keep in the federal savings account. Look it up.)
In brief: On Sept. 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia came up with a roadmap for operation of a federal government with three branches — executive, legislative and judicial. In addition to being in style with those nifty colonial hats that still can be purchased from stands in Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, should you want one, the three-cornered design was meant to ensure no one branch would have too much authority over all of us.
If we were to really embrace Constitution Day, it would require a follow-up holiday — “You Only Got the Constitution Because You Promised Us a Bill of Rights” Day. (Historically accurate, if really tough to put on a bumper sticker). Approval of the Constitution essentially came only after the promise that our pesky personal First Amendment freedoms (now known as religion, speech, press, assembly and petition) would be protected from this new powerful, central government.
Of course, as one supporter of the proposed Constitution argued, given the limits built into the document, the federal government was destined to remain a tiny, somewhat powerless entity — a kind of post office with an army, collecting but a few taxes to support itself, staffed by a few people earning low wages and with a system of courts to cut down on dueling.
Lest we forget, not that many years before 1787, the not-yet-United States had fought and won a costly, lengthy war against a powerful, central government — it was called “King.” The Constitution was the means by which the United States officially defined itself as something unique in the world — and in human history.
After centuries of religious strife and government-approved faiths, this new nation would neither favor nor disfavor religions of any kind. After millennia when” might” buttressed those who ruled by so-called divine “right,” this would be a country of law and self-governing souls. As a consequence of the Constitution, we were – and are – bound together, however imperfectly, by a rule of law and a dedication to “form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Not bad for a preamble — if too long for a single tweet.
So passed another Constitution Day, in a time beset for political rancor, COVID-19, the latest in centuries of calls for social and racial equality and justice. For all too many of us, Sept. 17 was just another day to wake, put on shorts and a nice shirt or top and sit in front of a computer screen and Zoom as if fully dressed.
Thanks to our educational system, even with distance learning, perhaps some seventh-grade civics classes raised a glass or milk carton to celebrate this unique moment in humanity’s struggle to better itself.
If this has you feeling a bit guilty about failing to step outside and scream “Huzzah” on Constitution Day, take heart — it will come around again in 2021.
As for me, I have another plan: I’m stocking up on noisemakers, fireworks and a few beverages to really whoop it up on Dec. 15 — Bill of Rights Day.
Really. It’s a national holiday too. (Look it up).
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.