Two hundred and twenty six years ago, on September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the final time to sign the document they had crafted over the course of the summer in Philadelphia. The date commemorating this event has been a federal observance and has been known as “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” since 2004. And since 2005, universities receiving federal funds have been required to mark the event by offering some sort of programming on the history of the Constitution.
If you are currently a college student, then you probably know what this means for you. You can expect Constitution Day parades, games, music, and cookies; but if you are not a college student, don’t feel left out. Here is what you can do: Just read it. Read it on the street corner. Read it on your smartphone.
Have a website translate it for you so you can read it in Mandarin Chinese. Load it on your mp3 player and listen to it while you exercise. Make a “mix” tape and listen to the soothing prose of Article II if you need assistance drifting off to sleep.
If you are thinking to yourself “Do I have to? I am too busy, tired, intimidated, or disinterested to read that thing,” then you have illustrated the problem and the precise reason that we have a Constitution Day—people do not tend to know, or seemingly even want to know, their own Constitution. Surveys routinely indicate that one-third or fewer registered voters have read the document and the numbers are even more distressing for high school seniors and those who are not registered to vote.
So, your assignment today is to get to know your Constitution. Like any good book, you can’t put it down. Make notes in the margins. Jot down questions. Consider this as the beginning, not the end of a discussion. Concentrate on the text and the context; notice the distinctly pragmatic orientation and structure of the project; and realize that the document was crafted in deliberately broad language, with an eye to future revisions and impending amendments, colored by the need to appease various factions present at the Convention, and intended only to provide a concise blueprint to be passed on to subsequent generations. Even including its 27 amendments, the Constitution is still only 8,000 words and is deafeningly silent on some of the most controversial political issues of our day.
For example, you will look in vain for any mention of “privacy” in the Constitution. The same goes for “democracy.” Nor will you find any specification on how (or even why) we vote in this country. You will find no anticipation of the Department of Homeland Security, or any explicit directive for regulating the internet, or any guidance for how much we should pay federal officials. You will not find a specific assertion of the government’s power to compel the purchase of health insurance; but nor will you find any specific preclusion of this authority. And, since we are always in an election cycle, you will notice that the way we pick our candidates is mentioned nowhere in the text, since of course the size, scope, and complexity of the electoral process have changed radically since 1787. For that matter, you won’t even find any mention in the Constitution of a day meant to celebrate the Constitution!
Does this mean Constitution Day is somehow “unconstitutional?” I would say no, but this is only to underscore a point often lost in contemporary political discourse: verily we must focus on what the Constitution says, but this is only the first step in determining what it means. To be sure, such an endeavor is daunting; but no one said maintaining a constitutional democracy was easy. Just take a look around the world.