In a tavern in Dover 225 years ago, local delegates debated and then voted to ratify our nation’s Constitution.
They found in this new approach to governing a document that made clear the values of freedom and justice that comprised our young nation’s core character. In doing so, these delegates did more than make Delaware the “First State.” They helped build momentum for the ratification of what would become the blueprint for aspiring democracies around the world.
While it began as an effort to make our young democracy more perfect, in the centuries since its adoption the Constitution has helped guide us through times that have tried citizens’ souls and tested our nation’s resilience. Whether we were facing a Civil War or simply periods of growing incivility, the Constitution helped point the way forward.
We are currently engaged in a great debate about how we can best use the tools the Constitution provides us to tackle our nation’s problems. The appearance of increased partisanship and a breakdown in dialogue on Capitol Hill has led the federal government to repeated stalemates and periodically edged us perilously close to federal default. Sweeping proposals to help create jobs or help people get back on their feet so they can get back to work seem to be analyzed by some less for their merits and more for their political value — whether opposition to them could help or hurt during the upcoming elections. Given all this, citizens are right (and quick) to say that things seem broken.
Yet amid these disputes and dysfunction, despite growing frustrations and limited agreement, we remain the strongest nation in the world. The framers of the Constitution had the foresight to know that discord and dissension was inevitable. They knew there would be times when passion and politics would overwhelm reason and rational debate. They could see from the flaws in the Articles of Confederation that a strong Constitution was critical to preserve liberty and ensure domestic tranquility. They set about drafting this remarkable document aware of the need for a clear separation of powers and other permanent protections that would be both stronger and more certain than any law a state or federal body might pass.
This week, on Wednesday, the National Constitution Center will formally kick off a full year of events commemorating the Constitution’s 225th anniversary. While the Center always does a great job of capturing the spirit of the Constitution, this year will include new and interactive ways to experience its history and meaning.
The unique genius of our Constitution means we are far more likely to bend than to break. This fact does not make the last few years of economic pain less real, the problems we face less severe, or the need to act less compelling. We need to keep working to get people back to work now, to govern responsibly, and to give our nation’s kids the opportunity to succeed in the future by strengthening our public schools.
The Constitution Center’s expanded efforts give us the chance to acknowledge more openly and more often that what unites us as citizens under our shared Constitution is so much greater than what divides us. I hope the Center’s efforts help make this a year not just for celebration but for a renewed commitment to building a more perfect union together.
Jack Markell is governor of Delaware. This post first appeared in the Jan. 15 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.