September 17th…the 2nd-most important day in American history?

Everyone knows that July 4th is Independence Day, and it is hailed and celebrated across America. But how many know that September 17th is Constitution Day? Created in 2004 from an amendment by the late, controversial but patriotic Senator Robert Byrd, the holiday marks the signing of the Constitution in (my beloved hometown) Philadelphia. Think about it. The first two chief documents in American government. One is a federal holiday and met with much fanfare. The other…well, how many of you had a day off, went to a barbecue or watched fireworks on the 17th?

True, however, is that the holiday is met with some celebration, especially in schools. Recent efforts to increase awareness of the document have resulted in student recitals and distributing pocket-sized copies. And have you seen the apps?

The Declaration states our independence, while the Constitution establishes how the country is run.  At the same time, it also establishes what our guiding principles are. Sure, it tells us that the government can collect taxes for, say, the Navy. But in a broader sense it outlines our beliefs as to how power and authority are determined. For example, the word “consent” appears 10 times. That’s a key facet of a democracy. Enter the amendments and that conversation can be taken even further.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia.  The Declaration, Constitution and more were created here.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia. The Declaration, Constitution and more were created here.

But just look at these mere 52 words that start the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.

Take certain words, certain terms. A “MORE perfect Union”. It’s almost like we’re pretty good, but let’s be better! Liberty is a “blessing”.  And the sense that the People “ordain” it gives it a feeling like it comes from a higher authority.

Yet with other words or terms, what do they truly mean to each of us? Do certain interpretations open the door for misuse? Today, are we truly a “perfect Union”? We have different political parties and so many groups that seem to be in opposition. But as Alex de Tocqueville suggests, does that work since they can keep each other in balance? Justice…what’s justice in one state can differ to the other. And “domestic tranquility” and our “common defense”…how often do we hear about the Patriot Act, executive authority and surveillance. Some feel it’s for our safety. Some feel it’s a violation.

52 words that precede how we conduct ourselves as a country. The Constitution is controversial today, much like it was in its development. For example, the word “slavery” is inexistent, and that omission and subsequent failure to tackle the issue precipitated the Civil War less than 100 years later. It even took years for the Constitution to be ratified. Despite setting the foundation for our Nation’s government, controversy has surrounded this document since its inception, and yet it endures and is relied upon as our governing document.

On this day that we celebrate its signing, what do you feel is a crucial issue that surrounds the Constitution?

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