1787 - 39 men signed the US Constitution, moving this nation forward towards a structure of government that for more than two centuries has been a shining light in self-government, something we should perhaps remember as we listen to those who would purport to lead this nation in directions that would abandon the hope and promise of that document
1862 - Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North is turned back near Sharpsburg MD at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in US history, with around 23,000 casualties. Yet despite knowing Lee's order of battle, George B. McClellan failed to destroy Lee's army, allowing his escape back across the Potomac and thus the bloody internecine conflict of the Civil War would continue for more than two and half additional years. Still, the victory was sufficient for Lincoln to announce the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that turned the war into an effort to end slavery and thereby prevented possible intervention on behalf of the South by the British.
All American public schools which receive federal funds are supposed to do a lesson on the Constitution on Constitution Day. I teach government, and the timing of my curricula always has me on some aspect of the Constitution around this time, although in my nonb-AP classes we will begin the Constitutional Convention on Monday, because of the two days lost due to a hurricane and an earthquake.
I wonder what the effect would be on America were we to have a national focus on either or both of these events each year, as we do on the events of ten years ago in NY, PA, and DC? Might we better appreciate what the Founders created for us? Might we have greater understanding how a battle not that far from the national capital helped preserve and transform for the better the Republic with which those Founders gifted us?
At the end of the Preamble to our Constitution we read that the document signed this day was intended to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" - The Founders were thinking of the future.
I cannot help but think of George Mason of Virginia, who refused to sign the document, in large part because it lacked an explicit protection of individual liberty. Himself the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written before the Declaration of Independence, Mason is as responsible as anyone for the commitment made to introduce a Bill of Rights in the First Congress.
Mason also connects with the events of 1862. Although himself a slaveowner, he was, like some others of his generation including Jefferson, very conflicted about the practice. He wanted the government being designed to ban the further importation of slaves, but could only get that allowed in the future: the Constitution said that Congress could not ban such importation until 1808, at which time it promptly did.
He opposed attempting to ban slavery, in part because he understood that any attempt to impose such a ban would mean the new government would never come into being: too many in the South would oppose such a move on economic grounds and some even would attempt to justify their opposition on religious grounds.
I do not propose to revisit the entire history of either the drafting of the Constitution nor of the Battle of Antietam. As you can read in places like the Wikipedia article on the Battle, this day was bloody:
The Union had 12,401 casualties with 2,108 dead. Confederate casualties were 10,318 with 1,546 dead. This represented 25% of the Federal force and 31% of the Confederate. More Americans died on September 17, 1862, than on any other day in the nation's military history.Granted, Americans were killing each other, but 3,654 total deaths exceeds the death toll in the three events of 9/11/01. If you want a full understanding of that battle, I would suggest reading the magnificent book by Stephen Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam.
I often turn back and reread about the past to help me understand the present and the future possibilities that confront us.
Too often we are ignorant of our own history.
Too often we fail to remember lessons learned at great cost, and have to reexperience what we should already understand.
We read in Madison's secret journal of the Convention that as the delegates - with the exception of Randolph, Gerry and Mason - were signing, Benjamin Franklin offered some remarks
Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
On this day in 1787, our Founders moved forward in hope.
On this day in 1862, that hope was not extinguished and the blessings of liberty began to be extended to millions still in slavery.
And on this day in 2011?
Do we still believe in securing the blessings of liberty not only to ourselves but to those who will follow?
Is political liberty possible in an environment wherein we see the development of the moral equivalent of chattel slavery in allowing too many in this nation to slip into economic servitude?
Would the Founders have argued for securing the blessings of liberty to themselves and the corporations, with the latter being allowed to have greater influence than the bulk of the American people?
Might Franklin looking today at the decline of so much in America other than the expansion of the military and the power of the corporations and the wealthy have reinterpreted the image on Washington's chair as a setting sun? After all, a half century ago one might well hear the expression that the sun never set on the British Empire, yet it did, and Britain is no longer an imperial power. Could the American imperialism of recent decades now be fading as well?
Thousands died in 1862. Thousands more were wounded. A key moment in the Union success came because of a Union officer from Mississippi actually named Jefferson Davis. On such small moments can turn great events. Those deaths, that battle, lead to a promise, a commitment, one repeated a bit more than a year later when Lincoln offered his words at the dedication at the site of Lee being defeated on his second invasion North. Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg of "a new birth of freedom." President Obama took that as the theme of his inaugural.
Freedom ... Liberty ... to ourselves and our Posterity
I think back to a July day in 1776, and also remember these words:
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
I can only hope that in our political conflict of today we remember how we got here, the price paid by the generations before us, the commitments made, the risks even unto death taken by those who helped shape this country.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation after the bloodiest single day in this nation's military history.
The promise of that document did not begin to get fulfilled until a century had passed, and involved the deaths of more fighting for achievement of full rights.
Event today some would deny freedom and liberty to those of a different faith, whose skin color is darker, who are born into economic misfortune . . .
Franklin spoke of a rising sun. As I write on an overcast morning I wonder if that sun is now being eclipsed by greed, by fear, by hatred.
If only we would truly learn our history, all of it, without blinders.
So I continue to learn.
So I teach.
So I write.