Members of the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution 221 years ago this week, on Sept. 17, 1787.
A 2004 law that established Constitution Day requires all government-funded schools provide educational programs on the history of the U.S. Constitution each Sept. 17.
Although the Constitution has been tattered — some would say shredded — in recent decades, this is still a time worth celebrating, if only to remind us of the historic importance of that document, which created a framework that permitted the United States to grow to be perhaps the most prosperous and powerful nation the world has ever seen.
It reminds us the U.S. is not so much a country based on ethnicity and historical roots, but on a set of ideas about freedom and human rights.
The key to understanding the Constitution is that it tried to set up a government of sufficient yet strictly limited and carefully enumerated powers to establish a predictable rule of law while leaving the people generally free to pursue their own vision of what constitutes a good life.
As a result of the compromises inherent in any political document, it was hardly perfect, most notably in permitting slavery and counting slaves as three-fifths of an ordinary citizen. But that imperfection has been corrected, though at the cost of a great deal of blood and treasure in a war that still resonates.
The principles embodied in the Constitution — of strictly limited powers and three branches, each designed to check potential abuses by the other branches — have been challenged and sometimes violated almost from the beginning of our history, particularly through much of the 20th century.
Most of those we send to Washington think little if at all of keeping the government as limited as a close reading of the Constitution would demand, but instead see the national government’s power as essentially unlimited — permitting it to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ money, invade other countries with no congressional declaration of war, to keep people imprisoned without charging them with a crime, or to invade peoples’ houses and other private spaces in the name of a constitutionally dubious war on drugs.
And yet … and yet. The Constitution, through the courts, through other branches of government and through the force of public opinion, still has a good deal of authority to rein in abuses of power.
It helps us aspire to the rule of law and to respect due process.
It reminds us that government is designed to protect liberty and our other rights, not to rule us in a strictly arbitrary fashion.
Imperfect as it may be, imperfectly followed as it may be, it offers a great deal of hope and a good deal of the reality of the individual freedom that is so important to any civilized society.