The Constitution has power because people still believe.
Sunday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day, the 230th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. The event kicks off Constitution Week, enacted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956.
After 11 years under the Articles of Confederation, the country had seen states argue over fishing rights, funding the national treasury and territory disputes, with two states briefly declaring war on each other, representatives from 12 of the 13 the quasi-independent United States met to discuss how to fix the union. After five months of debate, on Sept. 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention signed a document that restructured the federal relationship and would more strongly unite the nation under a central government.
The wisdom of the Constitution is not that it was an infallible document, but instead one that would allow for adaptation as times changed. The framers knew they could not anticipate the future, leaving open a lengthy but direct means to change it, which happened less than two years later with the first 10 amendments. In total, we have amended it 27 times.
Whether Americans are native-born or naturalized immigrants, subscribing to a host of political views across the spectrum, we “believe” in the Constitution. Even during the American Civil War, both Confederates and Unionists “believed” in the same Constitution, though violently disagreeing in their interpretation.
Why does the U.S. Constitution work while other constitutions in other countries have failed? The Constitution of the Soviet Union enumerated the rights of the people to speak freely and elect representatives. The Constitution of North Korea does the same and yet is one of the most repressive nations in the world. Other countries have constitutions routinely cast aside after elections, leading to coups, civil wars and revolutions. States fall into tyranny when leaders usurp the rule of law with the rule by law.
We, the people, give the Constitution power because we collectively believe in it. It’s why one leader peacefully transitions the reins of power to his or her opponent after even the most contentious of elections. It’s why we pay or contest speeding tickets, or argue passionately before robed judges in our temples of marble columns about the meaning of sentences, sometimes even just a few words, to prove we or others have the right to vote, or be freed from imprisonment, read uncensored literature, attend integrated schools, marry whom we love, protest in the street or speak our ideas freely.
Our elected officials, public servants and soldiers do not swear loyalty to the nebulous “state,” nor a flag nor leader nor high office but rather, they swear to “... support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ....” Our loyalty is not to a man or a chair but to a piece of parchment and ink, because the naked, unimpassioned words are the same for us all. Whatever our beliefs in divinity or lack thereof, Americans believe in a civic religion with our “holy text” being the Constitution.
Ignoring it or threatening to overthrow it is not just treason, as it would be in other countries, but more akin to blasphemy or sacrilege. In a country where we do not have common ties of religion, ethnicity or national history, we must rely on a common thread to unite us. We believe in the Constitution because no matter what injustice may be done to us by a neighbor or stranger or an agent of the state, the Constitution and the laws derived from it give us remedy and redress. Without the law, there can be no freedom, and without justice, there can be no law.
The Constitution’s parchment and ink has no power. It does nothing on its own but fade, playwright Peter Sagal said. Yet we, the people, believe in it. We, the people, give power to an idea, one that still guides us after 230 years.