Celebrating Constitution Day
Perhaps most people aren’t even aware that Monday is Constitution Day or even what the day commemorates. A recent Washington Times/JZ Analytics poll demonstrated that a broad cross section of Americans do not have a strong understanding of the Constitution. This is a shame. Everybody celebrates the day that Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, but far fewer people are even familiar with the events, or the document, that launched us as a nation.
The story begins with an unlikely hero: a soft-spoken, studious politician from Virginia by the name of James Madison. Madison asked his friend, Thomas Jefferson, to send him hundreds of volumes on politics from France, so that he could begin a research project on ancient and modern confederacies.
Closeted away at Montpelier, his rural home in Virginia, Madison explored the virtues and, even more importantly, the vices of confederacies, both past and present. His purpose was to experiment with ways to improve upon older models, and his investigations bore more fruit than most research projects ever do. The exercise was never meant to create a federal government so powerful that it would stifle state governments or individual initiative. It was about striking a balance between national and state government, all the while ensuring it is always the citizens who are in charge.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, they made two decisions that would be crucial to their success: They elected George Washington as the president of the Convention, and they chose James Madison’s Virginia Plan as the starting point of all their debates.
Madison’s Plan certainly did not receive universal approval. And as these 55 men from twelve states debated how the United States should be governed, Madison’s suggestions would undergo numerous and significant changes. Large states would have to find common ground with small states; free states would have to compromise with slave states; and agricultural interests had to be reconciled to manufacturing interests.
At last, after three and a half months of wrangling, the Convention agreed on a final form of government. And on the last day of the Convention, September 17, 1787, nearly every member in attendance was willing to sign what would become, after its ratification, the Constitution of the United States of America.
When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his magnificent study of Democracy in America in the 1830s, he admitted that he was not as impressed with America’s Revolutionary War victory as Americans seemed to be. Three thousand miles of ocean had more to do with their triumph over the English, he thought, than military skill or valor.
Instead, what impressed Tocqueville was the Constitution that Americans had framed after the dust cleared. He declared that “it is a novelty in the history of society to see a great people turn a calm and scrutinizing eye upon itself”—to voluntarily adopt a Constitution that would safeguard liberty—“without having wrung a tear or a drop of blood from mankind.”
As a Frenchman, Tocqueville would have had in mind other revolutions that had led to far bloodier outcomes. And in our own time, it is a useful lesson to remember as we watch the revolutionary uprisings in other parts of the world: Once an oppressive tyrant has been overthrown, the hard work has only just begun.
Despite the challenges that lay before us, I believe our greatest days can be ahead of us if only we embrace our founding principles, resolve ourselves to go forward, and embody our great American promise.
So this September 17, the 225th since the signing of our great charter of liberty, be sure to celebrate those eminent Americans—such as George Washington and James Madison—who designed a Constitution that would “establish justice … and ensure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Their accomplishment is worth celebrating.