On Sept. 17, 1787, 42 delegates from 13 colonies met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to sign the Constitution of the United States. The four-page, handwritten document they signed that day is now considered by many to embody the greatest expression of statesmanship and compromise ever written. When it went into effect, a new nation known as the United States of America officially came into being.
That new nation and its Constitution expressed a movement toward liberty that was in direct contradiction to the long held belief that the common people were fit only to be governed by superior aristocratic sovereigns who received their authority directly from God.
In contrast, the writers of the Constitution trusted that free people not only would be able to govern themselves wisely, but that they would willingly and thoughtfully embrace the tasks self-governance would lay upon them. Just how radical that belief was, is suggested by the words spoken by James Madison at the conclusion of the delegates’ Constitutional deliberations: “The happy union of these states is a wonder, their Constitution a miracle; their example the hope of liberty throughout the world.”
Today some fear that we citizens, complacent about our freedoms, distracted by the press of our daily lives, and fearful that efforts by individuals are ineffective and meaningless, are forgetting just how much trust the Founding Fathers had in us, and just how much authority they placed in our hands. Although we are a Republic, and although we delegate much authority to those who represent us, in the end it is we, and only we, who can give that authority or take it back if we are no longer being served well.
Should we fail to be diligent with regard to that control, it is certain that powerful self-interests can and will find multiple ways to usurp it. Clearly, under our Constitution, the ultimate responsibility for what this country is and for what it will become rests firmly in the collective hands of “…we the people.”
As we approach the 226th anniversary of that September date on which our Constitution was signed, the President of the United States, in accordance with Public Law 915, will proclaim the week of Sept. 17-23 as “Constitution Week.” Traditionally our governor and our mayor will make similar proclamations. Might we not use these yearly announcements to remind us that the responsibility for the future welfare of our country rests in our hands and then ask ourselves, “How seriously am I taking my role as a citizen of this free nation? What am I doing to prove the validity of that radical belief our Founding Fathers embodied in our Constitution?” If we were to do so, perhaps these are some of the questions we might consider asking:
1. How seriously do I regard my responsibilities as a citizen? What are my children learning from my example?
2. Am I well-informed about the Constitution? Do I share that knowledge with my children?
3. How do I interpret the words written in the Preamble to the Constitution?
“We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
4. Do I vote regularly, remembering how many of our citizens have given their lives to guarantee our right to do so?
5. Am I an informed voter? Do I seek out multiple sources of information?
6. Do I judge my vote not only for how it affects my own best interests, but for how it affects the best interests of the Republic?
7. Before deciding how I will vote, do I sincerely try to understand and consider viewpoints that differ from my own?
8. Am I willing to search for common ground among opposing ideas and willing to make compromises for the good of all?
Members of the Esther Reed Chapter of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution will be considering these and other issues Saturday, Sept. 14 at 1 p.m., near the Red Wagon at Riverfront Park where we will publicly celebrate Constitution Week with our award-winning Constitution Day Event, a non-partisan activity complete with costumed participants. We cordially invite you to join us.
Dr. Janet R. Norby is the Constitution Day Committee Chair or the Esther Reed Chapter of the National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.