Commentary

September 28, 2012

A day for Constitutional conversation

Commentary by Ken Dodd
319th Air Base Wing Historian

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — Sept. 17, 2012, marked the 225th anniversary of the signing of America’s Constitution.

As federal employees, we commemorate that anniversary with Constitution Day and Citizenship Day. This day was established to ensure all federal agency employees have the opportunity to learn more about America’s great charter, the U.S. Constitution.

Why is it important for citizens to know and understand the Constitution?

Author Linda R. Monk, in her book, “The Words We Live By, Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution,” believes many Americans think of the Constitution as words on paper, preserved under glass in Washington, D.C.

She contends the Constitution is also “an on-going conversation among Americans about the meaning of freedom in their daily lives.”

However, a piece of paper only contains words and ideas. It is through the actions of individuals and their interpretation of “liberty” that gives the Constitution its power. Monk succinctly states that the conversation about liberty is the struggle of all Americans since 1775 to be included in the ideals of “We the People.”

Today, that conversation is still evolving, about capital punishment, voting rights, taxes, speech, religion, gun ownership and all the other rights, assignments and prohibitions outlined in the Constitution’s seven Articles and 27 Amendments.

So, what do you know about your Constitution?

The Constitution established our system of government with its separation of powers between the federal branches of government (Articles I, II and III) and the division of power between the federal government and the states, as explained in Article IV. Article IV also describes the rights accorded each citizen. As the Supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution trumps all other subordinate laws.

The framers of the Constitution knew when they drafted the document’s original 4,543 words, it was not a perfect document. As such, Article V outlines how the Constitution can be changed through Amendments. According to Monk, more than 11,000 constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress since 1789, with 33 of these receiving the necessary two-thirds vote and sent to the states for ratification.

However, the Constitution has only been amended 27 times. Remember, it took a promise of adding individual liberties, the Bill of Rights — the first 10 Amendments — to get nine of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution and usher in America’s democratic form of government.

According to Monk, Justice Thurgood Marshall saw the defects of the Constitution and knew the document was “defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today.”

Did you know that Article VI (the Supremacy Clause) requires all state and federal officials to swear an oath to uphold the Constitution? As federal employees, both military and civilian, we take an oath of office that requires us to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. However, what does that oath really mean or require of us? Are we literally defending a piece of paper written 225 years ago? Or, are we defending liberty as each of us defines it and protecting a way of life that the Constitution outlines “to secure the Blessings of Liberty?”

I believe the Constitution outlines what is possible in a democratic society. However, it takes the entire populace to define the meaning of the words of the Constitution and, through cooperative agreement and action of the people, to put ideals in motion and practice.

In the end, supporting and defending the Constitution comes down to how you define freedom. Are you advocating for and defending the rights guaranteed by the Constitution: speech, religion, press, lawful assembly; or are you protecting a way of life that guarantees your access to education, security, employment, and basic services? Perhaps it’s both of these concepts.
As public servants, there are additional rules that limit how we engage in political discourse and civic affairs. However, none are so large as to eliminate or abridge our engagement in civic affairs and political discourse.

The last 225 years have not been without turmoil. Throughout this tumultuous period, many Americans had to fight to be included into this new form of government and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” It is through those sacrifices that you and I enjoy the freedoms and liberties discussed above and we happily, and yes — sometimes wearily, defend in our jobs as public servants.

In closing, I mention Monk’s final thought from her book: “To decide for ourselves what freedom is. That is the greatest gift that our Constitution gives us a way to decide, along with your fellow citizens, what words we live by.”




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