Better sense of Constitution needed

Better sense of Constitution needed
We bring out the fireworks on the Fourth of July. We greet trick-or-treaters on Halloween, and we celebrate Christmas and New Year's with friends and family.

In between, there are all sorts of days commonly designated as "Hallmark Holidays" – a reference to the fact that they may have been created primarily to spur sales in greeting cards and other gifts.

Last Monday was an important day in our country. But government offices didn't close. We didn't exchange cards. In fact, for most of us, the day came, and went, and we didn't really know there was anything special about it.


Monday, Sept. 17 was Constitution Day. On this date in 1787 the convention in Philadelphia completed work on one of the greatest acts of creative leadership of all time, the Constitution of the United States.

Their work rescued America from what James Madison later described as "gloomy chaos" and set the world marching toward what we can now see as the Age of Democracy.

Yet there were no parades last Monday, no picnics or fireworks. Constitution Day passed largely unnoticed. It's no surprise. Americans have over the last 40 years drifted away from a connection to our Constitution, the document that invented the United States as we now understand it and helped America to become the longest enduring democracy in history (Athens lasted 170 years as a democracy).

We revere the framers. We gobble up books about them and love snippets of their wisdom. They have become our secular gods. Yet we have little sense of what it was they actually invented. We know that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed our liberty. But liberty alone, as it turned out, was not the answer to the question of how to create a successful nation. As the framers learned in the 11 years following 1776, liberty unleashed the ambitions and self-interests of individuals, factions and states.

Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, opinion writers for The Huffington Post, note that selfish behavior was so rampant during that 11-year period that the army nearly starved in the field of battle. Farmers took up arms. States threatened border wars with other states. The country, if it even was a country, was falling apart. This was the "gloomy chaos" Madison confronted when he entered Philadelphia.

He and his fellow delegates saved America by recognizing that the pursuit of self-interest, which lay behind all the chaos, was fundamental to human nature. Before 1787 self-interest was something that had to be transcended to preserve democracy. But the Constitution turned "vice into a virtue," harnessing ambition and channeling it into a system of representative government that pit interest against interest to find the greater good.

Power was separated and balanced. The system was driven by "conflict within consensus" as historian Michael Kammen summed it up. There had never been a government like it before. This was their great invention: a government that let people be free by recognizing what people were really like.

The power of their invention is inarguable. Out of that sweltering hall in Philadelphia, out of that crisis of the early American nation, emerged a blueprint for government that was designed to let the people govern themselves despite their imperfections. It did not count on people to be selfless or bigger than themselves. "If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote Madison. This new idea for government presumed people would pursue their own interests. Indeed it counted on them to do just that.

And it created paths for others to disagree, and resist them, or argue for something different. Their invention was a government designed to channel these struggles. To impede change until enough people supported it. To force people to the middle. To encourage compromise. To spread power around so, in Hamilton's succinct vision, the few could not oppress the many and the many could not oppress the few. A lot could get done if people worked together in this system. But, if they fought each other, it could all grind to a halt.

Monday was a uniquely special day in Vermillion – the groundbreaking for our new city hall was held. The new building has become reality, in large part, because the system that Hamilton dreamed of so long ago is still working. Yes, we can get a lot done if we work together.

That is worth celebrating.

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