Our Opinion: Constitution Day celebrates principles that define America
Alex Brandon | AP file photo
Workers remove the facade inscribed with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution from the building that formerly housed the Newseum, a private Washington museum dedicated to exploring modern history as told through journalists' eyes, on Feb. 12. The facade was later reinstalled at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
It’s invoked in immigration debates, campus speaker controversies, gun law logjams, copyright clashes and challenges to police searches.
Conservatives and liberals alike profess their loyalty to it, though their interpretations differ considerably.
Schoolchildren learn about it. Lawyers and judges devote their lives to understanding and interpreting it.
The ink dried 234 years ago, but legal tussles over its authors’ intent and its modern application make the United States Constitution as relevant and revolutionary today as when it was written.
Constitution Day, which we celebrate on Friday, lacks the emotional tugs and celebrity of Independence Day or even Memorial Day. But without the Constitution, it seems unlikely that this republic could have survived the more than two centuries since 42 delegates to the Constitutional Convention voted to create a new nation.
The Continental Congress had declared the 13 United Colonies’ independence from Great Britain just 11 years before. The colonies were loosely allied by the Articles of Confederation, which had no means of taxation and no power over the member states. Meeting since May in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, the delegates had concluded that only an entirely new constitution could save the fledgling nation.
The Constitution, signed Sept. 17, 1787, provided for three equal branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. It set forth the powers of each branch, enumerating and thereby limiting the powers of Congress and providing for a federal judiciary that would be appointed for life to ensure judges’ independence. A president would head the executive branch, be commander of the armed forces and have extensive appointive powers.
States’ interests would be protected in various ways. Each would have to honor the others’ laws. None could impose tariffs on imports from another state. Each, regardless of size or population, would receive equal representation in the Senate. States, not individual voters, would select the president via the Electoral College system.
Amendments to the Constitution would require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. The Constitution itself would be in effect once ratified by nine of the 13 states, which happened in June 1788.
The Constitution signed on this date in 1787 did not include the most familiar, endearing and controversial elements we know today. The original Constitution does not contain any guarantees of personal liberty. Those guarantees are primarily in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments, which were ratified in 1791.
North Carolina was one of the states that withheld its ratifying vote until the Bill of Rights was added. These amendments contain the familiar freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, press and petition and the right to trial by jury, the right to avoid self-incrimination, the right to private property and the right to bear arms.
The United States observes Constitution Week from Sept. 17-23 to mark the anniversary of the document’s signing on Sept. 17, 1787. The Constitution became the law of the land on June 21, 1788, upon ratification of nine of the 13 states.
Brass bells will peal at 4 p.m. Friday from sea to shining sea, marking — to the hour — the anniversary of the Constitution’s signing. The Daughters of the American Revolution organizes the annual commemoration.
It’s to the DAR’s credit that Constitution Day is observed at all. The group’s president general, New Bern native Gertrude Sprague Carraway, secured President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s support for a national Constitution Week. Upon passage of a congressional resolution, Eisenhower formalized the anniversary celebration in August 1956.
It’s hard to top Fourth of July fireworks for stoking star-spangled pride, but without the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that ensured its eventual ratification, America wouldn’t be the “land of the free” we know and love.
Taking the time to learn — and teach others — about the Constitution is the best way to ensure its guarantees of liberty and the proud republic it established will endure for generations to come.
Editor’s note: Portions of this editorial were previously published in 2008.
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