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Monday, 17 September 2018 18:14

Constitution Day

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The word "holiday" usually makes people think of big days like Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter. However, September 17 is a link between holidays and US history: Constitution Day. Americans celebrate it that day because the US founders signed the Constituion on September 17, 1787--four years after the Treaty of Paris ended the US Revolution (aka War of Independence). (A Constitution is a written plan of government, an explanation of how a government will be set up, run, and what freedoms the people have.)  Constitution Day, which celebrates American liberty as free people, also follows just six days after 9/11, a day inflicted on the US by terrorists who hated American freedom.


September 17, 1987 was a big day in the USA--the bicentennial of the signing.  That was also a big time in my personal life; my first month teaching full time.  As a newly-minted history teacher just out of William and Mary and starting my career teaching in Richmond, Virginia, I thought it was important to teach my 11th grade US history students about that bicentennial event. The US Supreme Court judges, President Reagan and some other government leaders were on TV that day to mark the celebration. Wanting my students to be informed, I let them watch the ceremony during class. I remember a few students being interested, but I also remember many putting their heads on their desks to sleep, as I walked around trying to get them to pay attention. Looking back, I see that as a metaphor for our country. We Americans like to enjoy the freedoms our Constitution gives us, but not enough care to pay attention let alone fight to keep those freedoms. (Many teachers quit in the first three years of teaching, and I can see why. I am thankful I did not let those students' apathy discourage me; I have stuck with teaching ever since and it's been a fabulous career working with many fantastic students and families.)


Brief Overview:


The US Revolutionary War was fought from 1775-1783. On July 4, 1776, the US Congress approved the final language of the Declaration of Independence. That is why July 4th is considered "America's birthday." However, the Declaration just explained that Americans wanted to be free from English rule, and why. It also gave the world the name "The United States of America." It did not include a plan for government. Actually, the plan of government that the Americans used during the Revolutionary War was called the Articles of Confederation.  It was a weak system of government. In order to pass a law or raise taxes, all 13 states had to agree--something almost impossible to do, since each state had a distinct identity, communication was slow, and there was very little direct contact among the states. In those early years, the USA was almost more like 13 little, independent countries, that just worked together when it suited them. 

By the mid-1780's, many founders saw the need for a stronger plan of government. England had been defeated and had granted the US their independence by 1783, but the states had a hard time working together.


However, many other American leaders feared a stronger federal (national) government too. They thought: "we just fought an eight-year war to be free from the tyranny of the English king. A strong Constitution might make the states (and thus the people) enslaved to a NEW tyranny-- a strong federal government!"  Patrick Henry of Virginia was a famous example of such a person. When he heard that there was a meeting to create a new Constitution, which he thought would make the national government too strong and thus make the states too weak, he wrote: "I smell a rat."


1787 Meeting in Philadelphia:


A group of founders met in Philadephia, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1787 to improve or strengthen the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they created an entirely new plan! Interestingly, those men met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania...the same building that the founders met in 11 years earlier -- in 1776 -- to debate and write the Declaration of Independence. This makes Independence Hall one of the most famous buildings in the US and the bell that was in its tower, the Liberty Bell, a treasured icon of freedom. (Many are surprised to know there is a Bible verse carved on the Liberty Bell from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."  This is one more example of the huge role that the Bible and and the Jewish and Christian religions have played in the founding of the USA. Many do not want you to know this today, but it is true.)


Of those who met in Philadelphia that summer, James Madison of Virginia is considered among the most important. He arrived in the city armed with some specific ideas he wanted to see included in the new document and worked hard to see it accomplished, so he is called "The Father of the Constitution." The framers also voted to make George Washington of Virginia the president of the meeting. As the respected general who had led the American forces to victory over the British, his leadership gave immediate credibility to the convention. The crucial roles of Madison and Washington show how Virginia plays a key position in the birth of American civilization and human liberty. Also, since is based in Virginia, when you study English with us, you also learn more about US history and thinking.


The leaders who met in Independence Hall that long, hot summer had a hard time reaching agreements. They came from states as far north as New Hampshire or as far south as Georgia. Some owned slaves and some did not. Some were from big states like Virginia and some were from tiny states like Delaware. Simply put, they had many different views. Many times it seemed their meeting would end in failure, without their creating a new government plan. One of the biggest conflicts was over the issue of representation. That is, how would they decide which states got how much power? For example, the states with large or small populations has very different ideas about how power should be spread out. For example, large states like Virginia wanted power to be based on population. That is, the more people they had, the more power they would have in the government. This was called the "Virginia Plan." In contrast, small states were afraid of being "gobbled up" by the big states and they wanted each state to have equal power. This was called the "Connecticut Plan." For awhile it seemed the discussion would break down. Finally, the framers created  the "Great Compromise." The solution? Congress would have two houses. The House of Representatives would have seats based on population, which made big states happy. Big states like Virginia and New York would have more seats and thus more votes. In contrast, the Senate would give each state the same number of seats, and thus power, so that made the small states feel safe in the new system, that they could defend their interests. This is a wonderful example of how history influences the present: the Congress still has two houses set up this way, till today!


Another concern of the framers was: how to keep the new government from becoming a dictatorship? They had just fought a long war to be free. They knew from studying history, those in power love power and want to keep it.  So, the founders thought of human nature. They reasoned, since human nature makes people selfish and desire power, then the way to prevent the government from becoming a dictatorship is to spread out the power, so no one person or group has all the authority. So, they created a government based on three branches, where each has some power to "check," or control, the others. These closely-related ideas are called "Checks and Balances" and "Separation of Powers."




The new Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, so that is why this date is now called Constitution Day. However, the Constitution did not go into effect right away. The founders required that nine of the original 13 colonies would have to approve, or ratify, the new document before it went into effect.  This was to guarantee that a majority of states agreed to the new plan. Tiny Delaware, believing they would be safer if included in a strong Union, was the first to ratify the document. This is why today Delaware's licence plates say "The First State." (For dates each state ratified the Constitution click here.)


Many do not know this now, but there were FIERY arguments among Americans who supported or opposed the new Constitution. Those in favor were called "Federalists" while those opposed were called "Anti-Federalists."  In general, wealthy, urban areas were pro-federalist while poorer, rural areas were anti-federalist.


The ninth state to ratify the Constitution was tiny New Hampshire, so the Constitution was technically approved. However, the two biggest states at that time-- Virginia and New York-- had not approved it yet, thus making the new plan's survival unlikely. Plus, not only were Virginia and New York big in population, they were  big in areas--stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Appalachian Mountains. So, while these two "giants" were not yet onboard, the nine states of the United States were not even contiguous; that means, they did not even touch each other, so the nation's long-term chances looked slim. It was not till later that summer when Virginia and New York voted to join, the the Constitution appear to be on a strong foundation. (This is one more example of the important role that Virginia has played in US history. And since is based in Virginia, not only do you learn English here, but you learn about US history, life and culture too!)


(Later, in 1860 and 1861, this ratification process was cited by the leaders of the 11 Southern states who voted to seceed, or leave, the Union. Their reasoning was: "Some eighty years ago, our grandfathers debated and voted to let our state join the USA. Now, we the grandsons are also free to debate and vote to LEAVE the Union. In other words, if our state was free to voluntarily join 80-some years ago, we are free to voluntarily LEAVE now." Newly-elected President Lincoln did not see it that way, and the Civil War began in April 1861.)


The Bill of Rights:


So, some American leaders liked this new Constitution while others did not. Later, to get more Americans to agree to support the new plan of government, there was another compromise: Add a Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights, which became the first ten amendments to the Constitution, guarantee personal freedoms such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, etc. (Read the Bill of Rights here.) The Bill of Rights was written after the Constitution, as a separate document. However, since it was the first part added to the Constitution and made it more popular, the Bill of Rights is seen as a critically-important part of the Constitution. (Source)  Many do not know this today, but the 10th Amendment reads: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." This means several things. For one, the Constitution was designed to be LIMITED in nature. In other words, unless it specifically grants a power ot the federal government, all other authority rests with the states and the people. Also, it shows the supremacy of the states. (source)  (Many tell you that slavery was the main cause of the US Civil War in 1861, but that is not true. Lincoln allowed slavery to continue in Union states such as Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri for the whole war. A more accurate explanation for the cause of the Civil War was: who would win the tug of war of power: the states or federal government?) The Union victory over the South at Appomattox, Virginia in 1865 sealed the federal goverment as supreme over the states, and since the New Deal of the 1930's, this trend has accelerated.)


Today, it is crucial that we understand the role of the US Constitution. The USA is not  a perfect country by any means--far from it. However, we should know that the US Constitution, dating to 1787, is the longest-used Constitution of any country in the world today!


The Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and many other crucial documents are on display in the National Archives in Washington D.C. 


Some threats to the Constitution and our liberties today:


  • Twisting the language: Many like to call the Constitution "a living and breathing document." That sounds good, and yes, the Constitution CAN and DOES change to meet changing times. Specifically, amendments can be added to address specific needs. For example, later amendments have banned slavery, given women the right to vote, etc. However, some people twist that phrase into something like: The Constitution can be interpreted into whatever we want it to mean. Some even say, "The Constitution means whatever the judges say it means, or the judges WANT it to say."  (source) In contrast, "Originalists" are those who insist one must read and interepret the Constitution based on what the founders intended, and on the original intent of the document.


  • Out-of-Control Presidency: Also, over the years, the role of the US President has grown very large, probably far larger than the framers intended. If you read the Constituion for yourself, you will see that Article I establishes a legislative branch, with two houses of Congress. Article I is the longest and most-detailed part of the Constitution. Since the text setting up Congress comes first and has the most information, most believe that the founders wanted Congress to be the most powerful of the branches. In contrast, the president is not discussed till Article II, and the judicial branch comes in Article III. As I write this on Constitution Day 2018, the US "trade war" with China and many other countries is in the news. However, the Constitution says that CONGRESS has the power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations." It is not President Trump's authority to oversee trade, but Congress' job! (source) A few years President Obama declared his "DREAMERS" act to legalize some people in the US illegally, but that was also not in his jurisdiction. It is the job of Congress to write immigration law, not the president's to just declare it. (source) The other night while driving I was listening to some radio news, and the "talking heads" were lamenting: "Why won't Congress do its Constitutional duty and stand up to President Trump?" I remember thinking: why complain about it now? Congress has been passive and letting presidents have way too much power for most of my  lifetime--why are you waking up to this problem only now?


  • "Hate Speech": A tricky thing about "hate speech" is...what is it? And who decides what "hate speech" is? Beginning in the 1990's and getting stronger and stronger, much "free speech" is being stifled because someone somewhere might label it "hate speech." Nowadays, it seems many think that if you say or write something that might "offend" one person or make one person "feel uncomfortable," then you should not be able to say it. This thinking is especially true on many college campuses, which is ironic, because a university should be a place to argue and debate MORE ideas, not fewer. The group FIRE works hard to defend free speech, especially on campuses.


Want to study more about the US Constitution yourself? Hillsdale College in Michigan offers a FREE online class, "Introduction to the Constitution." Check it out here.


Thanks for reading! Want to know more about English and life in the USA? Join one of our online classes today. Contact me to find out more!

Read 13625 times Last modified on Tuesday, 18 September 2018 00:24
Scott Dreyer

A licensed teacher in the US state of Virginia since 1987, Scott Dreyer has been helping Chinese speakers improve their English since 1989. Dreyer lived in Taiwan from 1989-1999 where he learned Mandarin, met his wife, started his family, and realized he loved working with Chinese students. He became an award-winning author and started teaching ESL online in 2008. Dreyer and his wife and their four adult children make their home in the beautiful Roanoke Valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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