Sept. 17 marked the 227th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.
This is a cause for celebration. But, what exactly is the Constitution and why should we celebrate? For many, the Constitution symbolizes an ancient text that a few old men wearing wigs signed after a heated debate in Philadelphia. This is evidenced by the fact that most Americans when tested receive a grade of C minus on Constitutional history. The Constitution is usually read in high school civics class but may not be revisited again during one’s lifetime. However, the legacy of the Constitution has far greater significance than what meets the eye. The Constitution represents the foundation of American heritage and offers a reflection of our Nation’s past, present, and future.
The Constitution is the cornerstone of American law and policy. It is the “supreme law” of the land offering an overarching framework for governance and establishing citizen’s rights and responsibilities. It is based upon six general principles, which reflect the power of a republic and the engagement of a democracy. The first principle is America’s identity as a popular sovereignty, which reflects the voice of the people and promotes representativeness. Secondly, a limited government was created by which power given by the people could only be exercised. The third principle is separation of powers evidenced by three independent, co-equal branches. Fourth, a system of checks and balances was created.
Fifth, judicial review was established which provided courts with the oversight function of evaluating constitutionality. The sixth principle is federalism, which provides for power shared between states and the Federal government.
The culmination of these principles formed the framework for the vision of a nation built upon a dual identity both a republic (government by the people) and a democracy (government for the people). Yet, this blueprint was incomplete since one principle was still yet looming. The (seventh) principle, which is equal citizenship, emerged through the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Equal citizenship would weave together the rich tapestry of the United States. It represented building a collective national identity that would embrace each individual regardless of his or her race or gender. Equal citizenship was not freely given but won through a process of struggle.
The Constitution reflects a history of struggle, an eternal struggle to ensure that “a more perfect union” would become a reality. High school civics classes focus on the struggle of our founders to become free from the tyranny of the British, the notorious battle of the Boston Tea Party, and the victory during the Revolutionary War. This is embodied in Patrick Henry’s statement of “give me liberty or give me death.” This victory was won however at the time of the Constitution’s inception liberty was not realized for many.
African-Americans, in particular, were excluded from enjoying the full rights of citizenship as outlined in the Constitution due the racial caste system that relegated them to the chains of bondage and enslavement. Therefore, the fight for liberty continued. This clearly illustrates that the Constitution reflects words on paper but people breathe life into the words. One such notable example was the enactment of the 13th Amendment in 1865 that abolished slavery.
Abolitionists, like Frederick Douglass took a courageous stand to move slaves from second-class citizenship to the full realization of their rights. He challenged America to live out its creed as outlined in the Preamble of the Constitution of “we the people,” which is a message of a collective identity. He warned, “The relation between the white and colored people of this country is the great, paramount, imperative, and all-commanding question for this age and nation to solve.”
This moral question was challenged during the Civil War and debated on the floor of Congress. The end result was the enactment of the 13th Amendment, which created a pathway to equal citizenship by eradicating the distinction between being born a slave and being born free.
The 14th Amendment is yet another example of the struggle for justice where “we the people” took a stand to make the Constitution’s values of liberty, inclusion and equality to life become a lived reality. Over the passage of time, it is the most cited amendment in court cases. The 14th Amendment was at the crux of the Civil Rights Movement along with the 15th Amendment, which provided equal access to political engagement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the words of the Constitution to remembrance during his “I Have a Dream” speech. King challenged, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights’ of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'”
However, this promissory note was marked insufficient funds despite the fact that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had been enacted. During the Civil Rights Movement, people from across the America challenged the moral conscience of our nation in order to uphold the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is evidenced by the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. These examples illustrate that through the Constitution, a nation was born and “we the people” were given a birthright of liberty.
Two hundred and twenty-seven years and still counting and, “The Constitution is one of the most important documents,” according to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
We celebrate the Constitution since it is the blueprint for our national identity and represents our values of justice and freedom. With the celebration of each year, we are still yet reminded that the struggle to make this vision a reality still continues. This is also a reminder of our individual responsibility to ensure that “we the people” are represented in our government by voting and remaining engaged in the political process.
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is an assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas College of Education, Leadership, and Counseling.