September 17 is Constitution Day, a day that does not receive the attention of other patriotic holidays like July Fourth, Veteran’s Day, or Memorial Day, but is no less important. Earlier this summer, Gallup released a new poll that showed only 47 percent of those surveyed feel “extremely proud” to be an American. This is an all-time low in the 18 years the survey has been performed and is down from 51 percent in 2017.
While Independence Day is celebrated as our nation’s birthday, it really should be celebrated as our nation’s date of conception. July 4, 1776, marked the day that American Colonialists formally declared their independence from Britain. The work, however, was just beginning.
6,800 “new” Americans died in action to win our independence. Once it was won an actual nation had to be created and built. Our nation’s real birthday is September 17, 1787, when the delegates to the convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution, therein setting the rules for what would become the greatest nation in history.
America today is radically different than America in 1787. In part that’s because of the evolution of the human experience and advancements in technology that have changed the capabilities, and perhaps the even the very essence of man. It is also because of the distance between the ideas that formed our nation in that time, and the ideas that people have come to form about our nation today.
We have lost our way in terms of staying connected to the principles of our Founding Fathers. Many people have used the sad, but inescapable, fact that the failure to count slaves as citizens and provide for their freedom somehow nullifies everything else about our founding. Their failed logic indicates to them that since we were not perfectly designed, then we have nothing if which to be proud.
That intellectual and moral stretch allows people to replace our beginnings with their own personal definition of what America truly “is.” We hear this all the time in the news when people, talking about an issue like border enforcement, state, “this is not what America is.” These statements are made with certainty while being grounded in nothing. They are just a way to say, “here is what I personally think America should be.”
America is not a Rorschach Test and it is not interpretive art. There are a set of specific things that America is and is not, and while our original design may have been imperfect not only on the issue of slavery but also on the issue of women’s rights as citizens, we have since righted those wrongs through Constitutional Amendments and legislation. On this Constitution Day, allow me to share thoughts on what Americans should, and should not, be celebrating.
Rejoice that we do not live in a democracy. Benjamin Franklin when asked after the Constitutional Convention what sort of government had been created, responded by saying “a Republic, if you can keep it.” To be specific, we are a federal republic that features representative government, fragmentation of power between the national and state level, and a series of checks and balances to control oppressive factions. Current efforts to turn our federal republic into a democracy by destroying the Electoral college would effectively end America as conceived.
Celebrate the fact that America is the only nation in history that was created by brilliant and educated men who had read every political theorist from Plato to Rousseau, and from Aristotle to Locke. They had studied every form of government attempted to that point, and then designed ours. It was the product deliberate and enlightened thought; not the machinations of evil dead, white, European males.
Remember that the unalienable rights embedded in our Declaration of Independence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a choice inspired by Locke) were mentioned to explicitly assure Americans that their life would be protected, their liberty would be preserved, and their pursuit of happiness not impeded by the state. In no way then, nor when the Constitution was signed 11 years later, did they suggest that Americans would be guaranteed any particular status or outcomes in life.
Our country was created as that beacon on the hill to everyone in the world who wished to seek freedom and escape tyranny and oppression. Our Founders were greatly influenced by the work of Cicero who wrote passionately on the need for a nation to welcome immigrants in order to be enriched by their contribution. There is nothing, however, in the Constitution that indicates that we are required to let in anyone, pay for everyone, and neglect the physical and financial security of American citizens in the process. Constitutional-based arguments to open our borders are sophistry.
Finally, nothing in our Constitution creates a mandate for us to try to establish its structure and principles elsewhere. While our Founders may have hoped their ideas could find fertile soil elsewhere in the world, those ideas were meant to be exported only through choice and not through our imposition and force. Repeated calls throughout our history to “spread democracy” (which is not our system in the first place) are without foundation. Our duty is to preserve our nation and protect our citizens. Our best hope to shine our light elsewhere is to first focus it intently upon ourselves.
The results of that Gallup poll may reflect the fact that people have largely lost track of what it means to be an American. Being an American has been turned into an existential abstract as opposed to a clear definition of objective ideas. It is impossible to be extremely proud of being something without understanding what the something is.
Fortunately, America is easy to understand because its definition is in writing. Perhaps on this Constitution Day you will pick up a copy of the Constitution and “refresh.” Regardless, Celebrate the day and celebrate your country. Replace the imagined with the real and appreciate that 232 years later, this remains the greatest nation ever designed.