Our nation today is badly fragmented, and civil discourse is, well, not very civil. Some have even speculated about disunion, of becoming two Americas.
Someone recently asked me, “How can the Constitution save us?” My response was that it can’t. Rather, it is up to us to save the Constitution. The document we think of as the U.S. Constitution is of course the Constitution, but there is also something that primarily constitutes America, and that is the people themselves. Who the people are and what we believe in – our character and public opinion – in a word, our ethos, or way of life – are as much the American constitution as the document signed by the framers at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, on September 17, 1787.
The U.S. Constitution contains our fundamental law; we the people are its source of authority and the spirit that sustains the rule of law and its purpose. On Constitution Day 2020, as we commemorate the parchment document produced some 233 years ago, we should also take stock of who we are. What do Americans stand for? To what cause are we dedicated? Can we work to engage in civil discourse with one another and to seek common ground as fellow citizens? For if we cannot, we will indeed be facing the sad prospect of two Americas.
On Constitution Day we owe gratitude to those who drafted the Constitution and founded the nation. One way to pay this debt is by remembering the Founders and the mission that inspired their labors. Another is to pay that mission forward.
Remembering the Founding: Constitution Day 1787
It was a crisp and cool Monday in the City of Brotherly Love, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. A bit chilly for mid-September in Philadelphia (and would feel downright icy for later generations of Arizonians!), but despite the overcast sky, at least no rain threatened to muddy the streets and dampen the celebrations that were imminent. At about noon, 41 men in ruffled shirts and leggings mulled about the Pennsylvania Statehouse, chatting, laughing, strategizing, and telling stories. Thirty eight of them took turns signing the document that had taken the entire summer of intense labor and compromise to draft. One man, George Read, signed twice; once for himself and then again for his fellow Delaware delegate, John Dickinson, who had already left the city but wanted his name on the historic document to which he had contributed so much.
Three of the men hung back from the table where the just-printed document lay; they would not add their names to the other signatories. One can only imagine the discomfort of the two Virginians, Edmund Randolph and George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts (yes, the very fellow after whom “gerrymandering” is named), as their friends and colleagues happily shared together their hopes for America’s future.
Not one of the signers of the Constitution harbored the illusion that on this their work was done, however. At about 1 or 1:30 that that Monday afternoon, the framing of the U.S. Constitution was completed, but the next hard challenge of ratification was now to begin. Departing the Convention site, many walked the short three blocks to City Tavern, where they dined together and said their goodbyes. I doubt that the three non-signers joined the others for happy-hour that fateful day.
Today we commemorate September 17th as Constitution Day in every state, in every federal agency, and on virtually every college and school campus across the nation. In doing so we pay a debt of gratitude to the labors and sacrifices of America’s Founders, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, William Paterson, Roger Sherman, and John Dickinson.
As they would have been the first to acknowledge, though, the real work of making a republic had only just begun. The success of the great experiment in self-government would be the task of the next few years, and indeed, the work of generations to come.
Forty one years later, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Lyceum Address, the young Lincoln remarked on the success of that experiment, but reminded his listeners that at the time of the Founding there was no guarantee that it would succeed. In 1787, “their all was staked upon it:– their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten.”
“They succeeded,” Lincoln said. And today their names are indelibly inscribed across our land. There is of course Washington, D.C. And Washington state, the Washington monument, Washington County (there are 30 of them); Washington-the-city, or some variation thereof (there are 25 of these, including my favorite, George, comma, Washington; there is Madison, Wisconsin; Madison County; Madison Avenue; Franklin Institute; Franklin Field (if you’re a Philadelphia Eagles fan – but I’m guessing you might prefer the Cardinals to the Eagles?); Hamilton College; Paterson, New Jersey; Sherman Connecticut; Dickinson College. And of course, Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.
Yes, in this respect, they surely succeeded.
Paying it Forward and America’s Future
Can we still claim that success in achieving our goals as a nation? Shortly after the Constitution was ratified and George Washington took office as the first President of the United States, he declared that the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” In other words, the success of the experiment in self-government can only be realized in the way of life the American people choose to live. How we work to uphold the rights we claim for ourselves and how we show respect for the rights and liberties of others, will determine our nation’s character and future.
We pay the best and deepest gratitude to the American Founders when we do more than remember their names, as deserved as that may be. We honor them most when, like them, we accept the challenge and walk the walk of self-government, when we ourselves moderate our wants, restrain our self-interest, and show genuine respect for the rights of our fellow citizens and for the dignity of all human beings. This is the project of paying forward the project of self-government. It is the challenge before all Americans, that we may heal ourselves, and unite again to constitute one America.
Colleen Sheehan is the director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership’s new graduate studies program. Before joining Arizona State University, Sheehan previously worked as a professor of political science and the director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center at Villanova University. She also served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.