The upcoming 235th anniversary of the drafting of the U. S. Constitution is an opportunity to reflect on how the American constitutional structure can contribute to overcoming the current divide in America. Recall that the Constitution was a response to the weaknesses of the confederated government and the inadequate Articles of Confederation that governed the nation after declaring independence from the British. It was a significant transformation. Alexis de Tocqueville depicts the transition this way:
New in the history of societies is to see a great people, warned by its lawgivers that the wheels of the government are stopping, turn its regard on itself without haste and without fear, sound the depth of the ill, contain itself for two entire years in order to discover the remedy at leisure, and when the remedy is pointed out, submit voluntarily to it without its costing humanity one tear or drop of blood.
While today’s circumstances differ from the 1780s, Tocqueville’s mention of the capacity of Americans to discover remedies is a recognition of their ability to exercise reason, deliberation, and choice at the ballot box, and thus courageously defend America as it was founded. The current divide is not to be remedied by a new government, as happened in 1776 or 1787, but through a reaffirmation of the constitutional principles that instituted a new political community and structure more than 200 years ago.
America’s Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776 includes language that also speaks to a remedy for the current circumstances, but not as one thinks.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
The words of the Declaration speak to throwing off a government, but what if there are those who are using the powers of government illegitimately to “reduce [the people] under absolute despotism”? The response is not “to throw off such government,” but again to affirm and defend the Constitution as a means to escape the despotism.
America’s divisions can in part be attributed to those (including some in the government) whose actions are fundamentally challenging the constitutional structure by paying no heed to its restraints and by violating the rights of the citizens. Among the recent tactics employed by elected representatives and government officials include a committee pursuing a grossly unfair inquiry into the January 6 events, general warrants that violate fundamental rights articulated in the Bill of Rights, and speeches aimed to attack citizens who are exercising their constitutional rights. These examples are contrary to the constitutional order that is enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
These injustices are rightly perceived as abuses and usurpations, to quote the language of the Declaration, but should some citizens believe that violence is a proper response to “throw off such government,” they should keep in mind that such activity would actually advance the cause of those who are ignoring the Constitution and violating the tenets of the Bill of Rights: a fundamental transformation of America. In other words, should the American people respond violently to the current illegitimate exercise of power, they would unwittingly lend support to those who are destroying the constitutional order by giving them an opportunity to crush those who defend America and its government.
The people are invoked in both the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the Constitution. This invocation of the people is a reminder that Americans bear great responsibilities: first, to strive to achieve the ideals announced when they separated from the British and second, to uphold the tenets of their constitutional government. In a democratic republic this is achieved through understanding America’s constitutional and governing structure, voting, serving in public and private capacities, and holding the government accountable when it violates the trust of the people.
Celebrations of the Constitution will take place throughout the country in September. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1955 Proclamation ushered in the modern practice.
I invite the people of the United States to observe that week with appropriate ceremonies in their schools and churches, and in other suitable places. Let us give thanks for the wisdom of those statesmen of 1787 who labored ‘to decide the fate of republican government’ and of their successors throughout our country’s history who contributed to making our Constitution a living thing, a great taproot to feed and support the growth of our republic.
The celebrations serve to inform the people. Aristotle writes in the Politics that the excellence of the city, (I substitute nation to apply it to America), “is no longer the work of fortune, but of knowledge and intentional choice.” Publius in Federalist 1 poses the question, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Reflection and choice begin with knowledge and education.
Seek out a celebratory event and use the knowledge gained there to defend the Constitution and reject those who divide America and seek to destroy it. Among the best examples are citizens in the towns of Grand Lake, Colorado and Lake Havasu, Arizona who have embraced Eisenhower’s call for week-long celebrations. They are among the best of citizen-led efforts to preserve and defend America’s Constitution.
I spoke at the 2020 Grand Lake Constitution Week and will speak at the 2022 Lake Havasu Constitution Week. I encourage all serious citizens interested in securing America’s constitutional order to study these events and work to replicate them in their communities.