224 years ago, on September 17th, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed in Philadelphia. Ratification by the states came later, but this date marks the birth of a document that was, and continues to be, the bedrock of our legal and political society. And a birthday it truly is, for the Constitution has continued to grow and evolve through amendments and court interpretations over the years—a living document that is as strong and relevant in 2011 as it was in the 18th century.
Nonetheless, there is frequent discussion about the Founding Fathers and what they intended when they put their signatures on that piece of paper so long ago. Would they have supported the Equal Rights Amendment? What about a Federal Marriage Amendment? Did they envision the United States as a Christian nation or a secular system? Would they agree that the Electoral College doesn’t work anymore? People will vary in their views on these topics, and the ACLU has strong positions on constitutional interpretation—positions for which we have been successful advocates for nearly a century. The debates continue, though, as they must in a society that values the free exchange of ideas.
I have to wonder what the original signatories of the Constitution would think about the system that they created, 224 years after the fact. We have made strides that were likely inconceivable in 1787—minority groups continue their march toward greater participation in the American experience, and we became the world’s strongest and most successful democratic society. At the same time, our rights and liberties continue to be threatened, sometimes from within our own system. Fear, paranoia, and apathy have bred laws and policies that are blatantly opposed to the principles of personal freedom, due process, and equal protection. So, on the whole, would those founders cheer or weep for our country and its ongoing, laborious evolution? Perhaps they would do a bit of both.
In the end, though, we cannot spend our time chasing ghosts. The Constitution does not belong to those who wrote it. It is our inheritance as a nation, to be guarded and passed down to future generations. The only thing we can do as temporary custodians of this remarkable treasure is look for the underlying principles of fairness and equality in the Constitution’s words and align those values with our contemporary reality. That task is our mission—and our honor—at the ACLU.
And so, each year at this time we observe Constitution Day—not with a day off from work, but with educational programs in public schools and universities, and perhaps a bit of reflection by those who cherish the ideas written down that autumn two centuries ago. If nothing else, take a moment to read the passage below, understanding that these words belong to you. Remember them, and, more importantly, live them.
We the People of the United States of America, 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.
Preamble to the United States Constitution