Constitution Day should be more important
In even years (like 2010), September is the official start of the campaign season in America. Intra-party primary elections throughout the spring and summer give way to the inter-party battles of the general election. This year's midterm elections are no exception and because of the current political climate, they should prove to be especially interesting and intense. Like all elections, the results will help shape the national conversation and public policy decisions for years to come.
Nevertheless, September is important for a different political reason but few people know about it. September 17th marks the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, and since 2004, this day has also been known as Constitution and Citizenship Day. Two hundred and twenty-three years ago in 1787, the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia and the 40 people who put their name on that document radically changed the course of world history (O'Brien, 2010).
The Constitution is a document that is based on the notion of limited government as envisioned by social contract philosopher John Locke, who believed that while man was "good," he sometimes acted on his "inclination to be bad." This fact led man to surrender some of his natural freedom in exchange for protection and security (from government). But because these desires to be bad occur infrequently, the protection and security provided by the government needed only to be limited in nature. The result of this thinking was that governments rule in favor of the majority instead of ruling by absolute power. This system, to be legitimate for Locke, must also be agreed upon by the people and, as a result, the power of that government will ultimately rest in those same people.
In 4,400 words, the ideas of James Madison and words of Gouverneur Morris transformed Locke’s thoughts on limited government into five basic governing principles (O'Brien, 2010). These principles—separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, republicanism and judicial review—made the Constitution the unique governing document in the modern world. No other such document or resulting government has ever contained this unique combination of ideas. Taken together, these five principles lead to a final unifying theme: The Constitution is a constantly evolving document. Not only has the actual text of the Constitution been altered (through the 27 Amendments), but the interpretation of the text has also changed over time (through judicial review). In addition, the friction caused by three co-equal branches that "check and balance" each other has led to a continual ebb and flow of power among those branches and between the federal and state governments. That is, through these distinct yet interrelated processes, the Constitution is continually evolving.
Despite the uniqueness and importance of the Constitution, however, we choose as a nation to "celebrate" September 17th as a federal observance, not as a federal holiday. This means that according to Congress, Constitution and Citizenship Day is on par with other days such as Father's Day, Leif Erikson Day and Pan American Aviation Day rather than days such as Memorial Day and Labor Day (both of which are federal holidays resulting in all federal workers having the day off). Maybe our lack of recognition of the importance of this day and the document it celebrates helps explain why, according to the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier (CCJMM), less than one-third of Americans have even read all of the Constitution (CCJMM, 2010). In a 2010 nationwide telephone survey, CCJMM found of those who have read the Constitution, two-thirds report having last read it in school and only one-third report having read the Constitution on their own (CCJMM, 2010). Yet at the same time, nearly one-third of all Americans report understanding “a lot” about the Constitution, an additional almost 50% report understanding “some “of the Constitution, and 21% report having “little” or “not much” understanding of the Constitution (CCJMM, 2010). Given the significance of the Constitution, all of these findings should be troubling.
Right now there is a debate taking place in the country about the interpretation of the 14th Amendment and the idea of birthright citizenship (Dann and Curry, 2010). How can we expect a serious discussion about such a fundamental issue in the Constitution when so few citizens know and understand what it says? Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the "Constitution needs renewal and understanding each generation, or it's not going to last” (Hentoff, 2010). While Constitution and Citizenship Day is a step in the right direction, we still have a long way to go to achieve that understanding.