Today (or at least this week) all public schools in America are supposed to do a lesson on the United States Constitution as a result of a law proposed by the late Senator Robert Byrd of W. Virginia, in honor of the completion and signing of the document on this date on 1787.
I am for the first time in almost two decades not in a social studies classroom. Thus the thoughts I share are person, things I hope we all remember.
Three men still at the Constitutional Convention refused to sign the final draft: Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, later to serve as Vice President of the young nation; Edmund Randolph of Virginia, who would serve as the new nation's first Attorney General and second Secretary of State; and George Mason of Virginia, who may be as responsible as anyone for the fact that we have a Bill of Rights.
Ratification of the new plan for government was far from certain: after all, only 12 of the 13 states had even shown, and by September of 1787 only Alexander Hamilton remained of the 3 representatives from New York. Mason had enough stature in Virginia that his opposition - along with that of Randolph and within the Old Dominion of Patrick Henry, made it far from certain the document would be ratified in that important state, birthplace of 8 presidents, including 4 of the first 5.
Some argue today that the Constitution should be seriously revived. Some call for an Article V Convention, the results of which could not be limited ahead of time. Would such revisions as proposed be ratified by state legislatures or by ratifying conventions? How confident might we feel about the quality of those participating in either ratification process? Given how unleashed corporate power and wealth now it, can you imagine the campaign on such a document? Heck, might such a document define corporations as more important persons than humans?
Too many know neither our original Constitution nor what it says now that it has had 27 Amendments. Some think we are a Christian - or Judeo-Christian - nation. Some think only Christians should hold office - the ban in Article VI on religious tests for office, proposed by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina from the floor as the final change to the document, is something too few Americans know or understand.
Too few understand the process of how the document came into being, in part because of fear stemming from Shays' Rebellion.
It is far from a perfect document. It had holes when it was adopted (it did not define the qualifications for Vice President until the 12th Amendment) and one can argue it still has holes (in theory a Vice President facing an impeachment trial in the Senate has the right to preside over his own trial).
Yet even with its flaws, even with at times whacky interpretations of its meaning (not just in Citizens United, but earlier in things like Dred Scott, Plessy v Ferguson, Minersville v Gobitis, and - yes - Bush v Gore) it has served as the basis of a somewhat democratic form of government for more than two centuries.
So perhaps if we do nothing else, today we should glance at and reflect upon that document, including the social contract with which it begins, the Preamble:
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, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.Peace.