Today is Constitution Day. Established in 2004 with the passage of a bill by the late Senator
Robert Byrd, it is a young holiday, and you will be excused if you were not prepared to observe it. But you should observe it, especially this year. Here’s why.
1. We're all on the same page
Partnering with the Associated Press, the National Constitution Center recently conducted its
third annual poll of Americans’ views on constitutional issues. The bad news is that trust in our governing institutions has reached new lows, and few Americans express confidence in any of the 18 institutions tested—from banks and major companies to media, organized religion, and the scientific community. Congress received the highest “not confident at all” rating at 26 percent, while 24 percent of Americans report that they have zero confidence in the leadership of our entire federal government.
The good news? Individuals all along the ideological spectrum believe our nation’s founding principles are still those upon which we should rely. Three quarters of Americans agree that the Constitution is an enduring, relevant document; and 60 percent believe the rule of law should be followed and the rights of everyone protected, even in the face of vocal majorities and short-term public safety considerations. In fact, majorities of both parties—Democrats and Republicans—believe that government is inadequate in promoting the well-being of all Americans over special interests.
The challenge is to translate our shared values and concerns into political accomplishments.
Clearly this is no small task, and a general consensus on the value of our constitutional
framework and an inadequate status quo may not seem like much to build on. But this is also
why it is so important to observe Constitution Day.
2. Honor the compromises of our forefathers
The Constitutional Convention came to a close 223 years ago today, marked by the
ingeniousness of its pragmatic compromises. When the convention began four months earlier,
however, there was no reason to feel confident that such compromises were even possible.
With armed rebellion in Massachusetts, states at each others’ throats over land rights and
trade, and Britain and Spain waiting to pounce on our borders, it is hard for us to fathom the
desperation of that time.
From the outset and throughout, there were profound disagreements among the Framers. But
they persevered, painstakingly building consensus until that fateful day when they were able to
settle on a document that none of them were entirely happy with.
In an effort to persuade his colleagues to commit their signatures, Benjamin Franklin shared, “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a general government necessary for us.” He then implored every member of the convention who still harbored objections to join with him and “doubt a little of his own infallibility.” Additional business followed, and later that day most of them signed.
It’s hardly a Hollywood ending, but therein lies one of the best lessons of the Constitutional Convention. Under trying circumstances—when inaction or stalemate is certain to lead to disaster—sometimes we need to let go of our ideas of perfection to do the best that we can with the consensus we have, however incomplete.
3. Get inspired
Regardless of how Congress looks after November 2, the problems facing America will still
be here. The financial crisis, immigration, and healthcare reform will be no less polarizing.
Countering the threats of inaction and stalemate will require Americans and their elected
representatives to collectively doubt a little of their own infallibility and embrace the spirit of
consensus-building and compromise.
As courses of action are determined to address our nation’s most pressing concerns, none of
us may be entirely happy with the specifics. But maybe that’s all right. The 41 delegates who
gathered at Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, weren’t entirely happy either. And yet,
223 years later, millions of Americans still have faith in the basic principles of the document
signed that day.