Not many Americans know it, but today is Constitution Day. Well, technically, by force of 2004’s Public Law 108-447, it is “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day”—but never mind the fine print.
Two hundred twenty-three years ago, on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, after nearly four months of intense deliberation, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution, sending it to the states for ratification. The ensuing state contests were hard fought, but the Federalists, who were in favor of the Constitution, prevailed, the Constitution was adopted, and the work of the Convention was vindicated.
Before “social studies” replaced civics in our nation’s classrooms, school children used to learn a story about Constitution Day. Upon the Convention’s adjournment, and with the veil of secrecy having been lifted from the long debates, a Philadelphia woman waiting outside Independence Hall queried Benjamin Franklin about what form of government the new Constitution called for. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was his ready reply.
Franklin’s bon mot is more than just a witticism, for it captures the reality of why Constitution Day, and more importantly, the Constitution itself, matters today. If citizens are not vigilant about upholding the principles of the Constitution, republican government—representative government under the law—will fail. If on the other hand, citizens keep to the principles of the Constitution, we will “keep” the republic.
Keeping the Constitution—and therefore keeping the republic—is the task of citizens, not just courts and elected officials.
Just look at how well our courts and Congress—and the president, for that matter—have been treating the Constitution. When left to their care, our now aged Constitution could easily sue for elder abuse. It should be shocking, in fact, how shoddily we have treated the Constitution.
Take two well-known examples and two lesser-known cases. Two from the Obama administration and two from George W. Bush’s tenure in office. In the first, with the passage of Obamacare, the Constitution was not even an afterthought. It was passed as if the Constitution did not exist, for while normally Congress is happy to invent new rights under the guise of the Commerce Clause, in the case of the health care legislation the right invented also entailed a new extra-constitutional duty, that every citizen buy an insurance product as mandated by Uncle Sam.
As the lead attorney for the twenty states who filed suit against the law said earlier this week, in the first federal district court hearing in what is likely to be a long trial, “Congress can regulate commerce. But Congress cannot create it.” In what would be a historic first, Obamacare would require Americans to acquire a particular product. With this law the Constitution is irrelevant, for under its logic there is no limit to congressional power.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that in the wake of Obamacare, the Senate passed a law with such keen attention to the deliberative arts that the bill bore the name “the _____ Act of ____.” Passed first in the Senate, and then later in the House, “the XXXXXX Act of XXXX” seems to be the official name of the law. Kind of fitting for a time in which the Constitution itself has also been made into a fill-in-the-blank document.
Our national charter fared little better in domestic matters under President George W. Bush. Few other presidents in history issued as constitutionally anemic a statement as did the younger Bush upon signing into law the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Said President Bush, “certain provisions present constitutional concerns,” a statement about as forceful as a teenager telling her friends all about her “issues.” If a bill is unconstitutional, a president should not sign it. Relying, as Bush tried to do, on the presumed likelihood that the United States Supreme Court would strike down the law as unconstitutional, marks an abandonment of presidential duty.
All of this pushes us back to 2004, when Constitution Day was newly inserted into our nation’s legal code. The same act that designated September 17 as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” also said that every educational entity, pre-K through college, that receives federal dollars must drop everything on that day and teach the Constitution.
I am all in favor of teaching the Constitution and citizenship. It’s what I do, in fact, every day, for Hillsdale College, which because we operate independently of all federal dollars means that we are about the only college or university that is free from the Constitution Day requirement. When the federal government resorts to using the possible loss of federal dollars to force the teaching of the Constitution, however, it does not bode well for the future of the republic. “Teach the Constitution, or you’ll lose your Pell grant,” is not exactly “Give me liberty, or give me death.”
Despite its current sorry state, we have much to celebrate about our Constitution. May we do so by regaining our vigilance about its principles, and protecting it from those who have forgotten their duty.
David J. Bobb is director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C. Today they are sponsoring a free Constitution Day Celebration live webcast.