Today is national Constitution Day. On September 17, 1787 the U.S. Constitution was signed, becoming the supreme law of the United States. Congress passed legislation in 2004 changing the observation of what had been known as Citizens Day into Constitution Day in an effort to encourage citizens, especially students, to learn about the history and meaning of the Constitution. The federal law establishing Constitution Day mandated that schools receiving public aid provide special focus on the Constitution on September 17. In the case when the anniversary falls on a weekend, like today, the observations are held either prior to or following the seventeenth.
Over the past two years I have had the opportunity to teach American National Government at Des Moines Community College. For many college students, the course offers the first opportunity to read the Constitution and put the document into perspective both historically and contemporarily.
On Thursday, as my class discussed the concept of federalism, I played a YouTube clip for them from an episode of the old Andy Griffith show. Barney boasts to Andy that he has found his old civics textbook and claims he can recite the preamble to the Constitution “as if it were yesterday.” As Barney attempts to do so, it quickly becomes evident to Andy and the audience that Barney does not remember the words at all. The vignette poignantly illustrates that most adults really do not know the Constitution well.
The U.S. Constitution is 224 years old today. It is the oldest constitution in effect in the world. Signed in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Constitution Hall, by 39 of the delegates who had worked on its development, the Constitution set forth the structure and the duties of our federal government.
To the surprise of many, the word “democracy” is not in the Constitution. Nor is the term “separation of church and state.” The United States is not a democracy, it is a republic, a representative republic based on democratic ideals, but our government is not a direct democracy. Next time you hear someone spout off about how America is a “democracy,” tell them to repeat the first 20 words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands,….” That’s right, “republic” not “democracy.” The word republic means a public thing – our government is a public government of the people.
And while the Constitution prohibits the government from either establishing or prohibiting religion, the Constitution does not state that faith in God is not welcome in the public square. In fact, just the opposite. In an October 11, 1798 letter to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Constitution has been amended 27 times though only 26 of the amendments are in effect because the 18th amendment which ushered in the prohibition of alcohol sales was repealed by the 21st amendment. Where some would call the Constitution a living, breathing “organic” document, originalists seek to interpret the Constitution with the original intent of the framers. Over the past two years as the tea party movement has grown, more and more people are picking up the Constitution and joining in educational forums to read and discuss the document that established a government for the people by the people. That is precisely the intention of Constitution Day.
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