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When Our Country Came of Age: An Argument for Constitution Day

Monday, September 12th, 2016

Gary J. Schmitt

September 12, 2016 | AEIdeas

GreatSealAmericans celebrate the Declaration of Independence with July 4th — a national holiday full of festivities, fireworks and public events. As the country’s “birthday,” that’s appropriate. It’s especially appropriate given the revolutionary nature of the Declaration, which grounds a nation on principles of nature and not on religion, blood or soil — for the first time ever.

Constitution Day, September 17th—the day delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the draft Constitution and sent it to the states for ratification — is a poor cousin to July 4th. No fireworks, no days off from work. It’s doubtful that one in ten thousand Americans will even take note of the day.

But if July 4th is a celebration of the country’s birth, Constitution Day should be understood as the day our country celebrates its bar mitzvah or confirmation — that is, the day the country first reached maturity as a liberal democracy. Long forgotten is that, while the Declaration set our governing principles in 1776, it took more than a decade for the country to come to terms with how best to secure those principles in practice.

In the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.

For ten-plus years, the republic was governed by the Articles of Confederation; a document ineffective in delivering those very rights, international and domestic, that the citizens of the 13 states had gone to war with the British crown to secure. While never as exciting as the ends of government expressed in the Declaration, the Constitution has nevertheless been the stolid means for securing those ends for more than two centuries. For as problematic as we might find politics and government today, in the history of man there’s never been a legal order that has provided the same level of stability, prosperity and popular legitimacy as the US Constitution.

Here at AEI, we celebrate Constitution Day with an annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture. Walter Berns, our late colleague, was one of this country’s leading scholars of the American founding and explicators of the principles undergirding the American regime. As such, it’s entirely appropriate that we note Walter’s own words about the Constitution at AEI’s first Constitution Day event in 2012.

Some three decades ago I came to AEI and found my old friend Robert Goldwin in charge of the Constitution program here, and I joined that program. As a part of that program, foreign scholars and statesmen and stateswomen interested in the Constitution were invited to come here to discuss the American Constitution, its institutions, and its underlying principles, and a number of us—largely AEI scholars but not exclusively AEI scholars—went elsewhere and talked about the American Constitution in countries abroad. We visited France, Lisbon in Portugal, Cyprus, and, on a very important occasion, South Africa.

We also went to countries in this hemisphere—for instance, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil. Brazil was an especially interesting experience. Mind you, in each of these cases I was talking to people who, essentially for the first time, were involved in writing or considering a new constitution for their countries. Brazil in this case had just rid itself of a military dictatorship, and they were considering how to advance the cause of constitutional government there. I spoke in various places—usually before a law school audience—and I think it was in a law school at Recife where, after I finished my prepared remarks, an individual, probably a law professor—certainly an angry Brazilian—stood up and denounced not me, but the person who’d invited me to speak. He said, and one can understand why he said it, “Why did you invite an American here? They’ve had only one Constitution. Why didn’t you invite someone from Bolivia? They’ve had a hundred.

My principal experience in participating over the years in the program directed by Robert Goldwin was a deep appreciation of the American Constitution. And I came away with a sense of the extraordinary achievement of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and James Wilson as founders. We are an extraordinary nation because no other country has had men or women like our Founders; and we should appreciate them, respect them, and study them and in the process acquire an ever stronger attachment to this country of ours.