Constitution Day: education for life
The national observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was emotional, overwhelming and likely to overshadow most other observances for a long time.
But just a few days later, on 9/17, comes another opportunity to commemorate, celebrate and join with our fellow citizens in remembrance and understanding.
This time, we focus on a document that also has been the target of terrorism, foreign and domestic: the U.S. Constitution. The remarkable document went into effect in 1789 after a lengthy national debate over the advisability of concentrating power in a central government, and over the role of government in our lives.
A road map of how our national governing structure is to operate, the Constitution would not have come about as it did without its accompanying Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 to preserve our basic rights, including the First Amendment’s core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
Of course, two-century-plus-old documents don’t quicken the pulse or drive the emotion or national news media attention as did the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000. Nor should they, in the same way.
But that doesn’t mean Constitution Day will go unobserved or unnoticed. Congress, in 2004, mandated this once-a-year observance by all publicly funded educational institutions, leaving the specifics each year up to educators. Groups like the National Constitution Center and the First Amendment Center are offering lesson plans and other instructional tools to help teachers carry out Congress’ wishes.
In some ways, though the terrorists of 9/11 targeted buildings and people, it was the Constitution and Bill of Rights that they really aimed for. They were gunning for America’s one-of-a-kind set of guarantees against government by elitist whim or despotic strongman. They were attacking a nation where religious liberty is prized, but where no religion can be imposed.
Ironically, the fear that 9/11 engendered has, in some minds, produced a great and ironic assault on individual liberty in the name of national security. As long as the First Amendment’s protections stand firm and unchanged, the nation has the chance to debate and correct excesses, to reflect on and reject swings to the right or left in public policy.
Of course, we ought also to acknowledge that even the Constitution’s drafters and their work had flaws. Most notable is that the framers pushed off for 20 years a prohibition against importing slaves, simply delaying the confrontation between slave and non-slave states and sowing the seeds of the Civil War.
Thankfully, the group that included James Madison, considered the “Father of the Constitution” for his prominence in arguing for and writing much of the document, built in a mechanism for change. Thus far, we’ve ratified 17 amendments beyond the original Bill of Rights, including the 13th Amendment in 1865 abolishing slavery.
The amendment process — requiring two-thirds majority approval in both House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of the states — seems just difficult enough to prevent capricious change, though supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed by just three states to meet a 1982 deadline, might disagree.
The very idea that teachers and students are ordered to review the Constitution offends some as antithetical to the free spirit of the document. But there are ways to address even that: A few years ago, a group of law students debated the constitutionality of Constitution Day as their school’s observance activity.
You have to think James Madison would have smiled at that one.