Yesterday, families, schools and democratic individuals across the United States ignored Constitution Day. And why not? Certainly, the AIG bailout seems to have more bearing on our own lives than a commemoration of the antiquated details of Article I’s “qualifications requisite for [presidential] electors.”
But the neglect of Constitution Day is symptomatic of a greater neglect of the Constitution, not just by those in power, but by that very wellspring from which it first derived its authority: We, the People.
A disclaimer: My first real reading of the document in question took place about seven days ago, in the basement of Bass Library, as part of the most reasonable “Constitutional Law” homework assignment possible. But its powerful message came across, even from this first, tentative reading. For as much as the Constitution is concerned with specific mechanisms of government (e.g., oaths, requirements for public office, taxation), it is at least equally concerned with the individual responsibilities required of democratic rule. In vesting sovereignty in “the People,” the Constitution places agency in our own hands, trusting us to engage in our institutions and holding us accountable for the state of our union.
The commitment to popular sovereignty that permeates the text, from its ordainment by the people to its unprecedented insistence on a nationwide debate over its own ratification, is at once alluring and dangerous. As long as we understand our obligations, we are blessed with the mechanisms to have the popular will truly reflected in our government. By the same token, if we ever forget to engage in debate, and to express the results of that engagement in our votes, the system will not sustain itself. A government intended to sound the will of the people with a piercing, clarion call can respond to apathy with only silence.
We claim to be a new generation, more active and activist than those prior. And yet we let Constitution Day pass unnoticed? We claim working knowledge of our systems without performing due diligence on their source.
Embedded in the Constitution is a radical humanism, an argument that mankind can control its destiny. But the strongest rationale for that control is a resoluteness of purpose — a firmness of intent — that proclaims we are taking control of our lives for a specific end.
We cannot be like small children, begging to steer the car without the slightest clue how to get to Disneyland. The text of the Constitution itself provides the strongest roadmap to clarity of purpose. By understanding the means set out for expressing our intentions, we can best understand what is being asked of each of us as we are handed the keys and asked not to crash.
Reading the Constitution puts our idea of America in context. And that context reminds us why this country was once unique and why men once thought that self-government could be a small miracle in their lives.
It is easy to forget that the people who joined together in 1787 to constitute a new nation were keenly aware that their work would long outlive them. The framers, the ratifiers, the ordinary citizens of two centuries ago bound up in their great declarations the demand that we continue their tradition of civic engagement.
Our inheritance is a system that requires our participation. Like the would-be inheritors of The Westing Game, we are left with a clue to the whereabouts of our extraordinary windfall. But to claim it, we must understand the rules of the game.