Context & Relevance

“We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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 Constitution of the United States of America, as copied from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, office of education, 1935 edition. All punctuation true to the original.]

These words begin the national charter of powers for the United States of America. We U.S. Citizens attempt to live according to the laws, powers and values within it. We believe in this Enlightenment-influenced document so fervently that we have not only used the same Constitution for over two centuries, but we try to export the values found within it, and within the society it both reflected and created, throughout the world.

Constitution Day at Bakersfield College, 2011 Our planet's recent past has been very interesting. It has witnessed wars and changes of regime. It has witnessed tragedy and triumphs. Many members of our society and our government have been actively watching the developments throughout the world.

One large trend is the hope that other countries will change to a more ‘democratic' system of government.  Recent international events have shown the desire of many people throughout the Middle-East and North Africa to achieve change. Events in Libya and Egypt gave many there hope of democratic changes unfolding, but there have been significant setbacks after the initial waves of success. Organizations such as ISIS/ISIL demonstrate that not all change is necessarily for the better, according to our values. Change for the sake of change is not always the best policy.

Many in our country have criticized the failings of the democratic movements in these countries, as we see them enacted on television and reported through the internet. As we observe these developments, it is important to reflect on words 8-15 of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States before we start “judging” anyone. “…in Order to form a more perfect Union,….”

We need to remember that the Constitution of the United States of America is a great document but that it founded the second government of our fledgling nation, as our first was dying within 10 years of its start. [Articles of Confederation].

We need to remember that this great political and social tradition was the product of a group of people with up to 170 years of some form of local/regional participatory government. We need to remember that those representatives from the 13 North-American British Colonies[ that became our first 13 States] created a government in 1777, and that it was so inept they had to start over 10 years later: EVEN WITH the advantage of having had some participatory rights. We need to remember that this failure happened in a society that had one of the highest literacy levels of the 18th century [for adult male non-slaves citizens], and where people generally had the freedom to discuss politics relatively openly for the previous 100 years.

We need to remember that our nation experienced a horrific civil war seventy-three years AFTER the Constitution was ratified and put into law, and that this civil war was over a multitude of issues, including disagreements about the distribution of governmental power between states and the nation.

It could, and has, been argued that the Civil War of the United States was the tipping point in the creation of a true nation, instead of the USA remaining an association of states working together. We didn't achieve our modern success overnight, and the early successes took both years and bloodshed to maintain.

Furthermore our Constitution did not emerge from a vacuum. It was a product of what we currently call “best practices”, coupled with social and political theory. Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” [The Life of Reason, Volume I., 1905]. What we take from this is that we need to understand the past if we wish to make the future better.

Mole and Thomas' Human Statue of LibertyThose in the Constitutional Convention knew this. We also need to know this. We need to understand not just what our Constitution says, but why it says it and what it implies for the future. We need to work with it and not take it for granted. We need to use what it says as we stand up to the misuse of power at the local, city, county, state and federal levels. Some believe a classic modern example of this concept of standing up for our values was the popular protests that were recently held in Ferguson, Missouri, over what the public believes was a tragic [and unconscionable] misuse of power by the authorities. If true [not denying it here, but admitting I don't know EVERYTHING about what happened there], this would be an example of the type of misuse of power witnessed in 1770 in Boston-resulting in a similar heightened level of public concern. We have to wait to see what transpires in our democracy. And wait to see how our Constitution helps us prevent more misuse of power.

Moreover, we DEFINITELY need to have more understanding of the difficulties other nations face when creating a new political and social system. Most of them do not have the advantages of local participation and open-minded education that our founders did. Keep in mind that our great experiment [Constitution of the U.S. of A.] was unquestionably at least the second attempt. The squabbling between the different colonial factions was so bad that an even earlier attempt [Plan of Union, from the Albany Congress of 1754] was abandoned for lack of ability to get the various political constituencies to agree to it.

Some might argue that this earlier, failed, ‘Plan of Union' counts as our first attempt: which would make our Constitution of the United States our third attempt. And that doesn't even begin to deal with the struggles for constitutional rights of the various Civil Rights organizations of the last [and this] century. We need to understand our own past in order to prepare for the work of maintaining our nation's values for the future. They won't remain our values without constant vigilance by the people, for the people. We need to understand the failures of nation building between 1754 and 1789, and the struggles to maintain it up to now, before we disparage other nations' attempts to restructure their own countries. We need to be vigilant of our rights if we do not wish to lose them.

For these reasons, and many others, all U.S. Citizens need to really understand the Constitution, and not just pay ‘lip-service' to the ideals while ignoring the details.

That is why Constitution Day is so important to our country