Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, a holiday that many Americans have probably never heard of … yet they should.
There will be no fireworks, no sales at retail stores, no three-day weekend. Why not?
On Sept. 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed, setting us on the arduous path to-ward that utopian “more perfect union.”
The Constitution is the ultimate paradoxical document. Commitment to it may be best summarized by our support for issues we would otherwise oppose. Can we support conceptually the constitutional rights of individuals whose perspective we find abhorrent?
The Constitution is part of America’s moral trifecta. Along with the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution commits to parchment one-third of the nation’s public morality.
In ratifying the Constitution, the Framers simultaneously laid the foundation for the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Could the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have been as successful in Berlin circa 1938 as he was in Birmingham in 1963?
But the original document turned a blind eye, until 1919, to the systematic denial of women being granted the franchise, and until 1865, implicitly justified the institution of slavery.
Article IV, Section 2 required a “person held to service or labor” (usually defined as slaves, apprentices or indentured servants) fleeing to another state to be returned to the owner in the state from which that person escaped.
Moreover, the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3), critical to the na-tion’s founding, was reached during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 for census pur-poses and taxation. Those in the North opposed to slavery wanted to only count free citi-zens, but the South wanted slaves counted in the population. Therefore, slaves, who did not have the right to vote, were counted as three-fifths for census purposes.
However one feels about the three-fifths compromise in retrospect, there would not be a United States, as we know it today, without it.
But the Constitution, when signed in 1787, was not a finished product. If liberty and equality represented the Declaration’s credo, the application was found lacking. Qualified liberty enjoyed an 87-year head start over its equality counterpart.
It would require multiple failed compromises along with the lives of more than 620,000 Americans to alter the trajectory of America’s narrative, thereby placing it on a path closer to the words found in the Constitution’s preamble.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, which guarantees due process and equal protection for every citizen, placed the ethos of the Declaration into the fabric of the Constitution. With equality enshrined as a constitutional right, those excluded from the original document had methodically realized inclusion.
The United States went from a plural noun to singular. Moreover, the passage of the 14th Amendment gave birth to the doctrine of incorporation, by which portions of the Bill of Rights became applicable to the states, ostensibly minimizing some of the power originally granted to the 10th Amendment, the basis for states’ rights arguments.
The 14th Amendment, however, was also a servant to paradox. It was used in support of Jim Crow segregation (Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896) before it overturned it (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). It was also the basis by which women’s suffrage, civil rights and marriage equality realized constitutional legitimacy.
But the Constitution remains the road map that tests whether a nation conceived on the pillars of liberty and equality could long endure. If the Declaration offered what the experiment would be, the Constitution provided the how. And each generation henceforth has been called upon to answer the why.
How can we expect elected officials to remain within the democratic guardrails that were originally constructed by the Framers if we have no appreciation for the principles for which it stands?
In commemorating the Constitution, we not only remember the visionaries who crafted it and those who fought to preserve it, but also the responsibility given to us to sustain it.
As Franklin Roosevelt eloquently stated at his fourth inaugural address: “Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races, and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.”
In honor of Constitution Day, I will be in conversation with Brown University political science and law professor Corey Brettschneider. He is the author of the bestselling The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents. This event is open to the public at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Annenberg Auditorium, Carswell Hall, Wake Forest University.