Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson worried that his fellow Americans were not sufficiently critical of their relatively new state and federal constitutions. “Some men,” he lamented, “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.”
Constitutions, Jefferson recognized, are imperfect because, unlike the ark of the covenant, they are established by men who cannot fully anticipate the needs of future generations. The fact that Jefferson was a plantation owner living at a time when the supreme law of the land sanctioned slavery only re-enforces his point.
An uncritical acceptance of inherited rules and procedures not only means that the mistakes of past generations remain uncorrected, but it may also prevent political institutions from being truly democratic. If current citizens defer to the judgments of their ancestors, they are not exercising the kind of self-rule valued by Jefferson and many other Americans.
Congress’s declaration a decade ago that Sept. 17 – the anniversary of the signing of America’s founding document – would be known as “Constitution and Citizenship Day” may initially appear to be an example of the kind of “sanctimonious reverence” that Jefferson feared. This is, however, not necessarily the case.
In 2004, Congress also decreed that publicly funded schools must provide educational programming “pertaining to the Constitution” on Sept. 17. Despite my reservations about congressional interference in university curricula, I applaud Congress’s desire for Sept. 17 to be about citizen education rather than uncritical celebrations or bombastic political orations.
Education is the best way to alleviate Jefferson’s concerns. Learning about the history and text of the Constitution may very well increase citizens’ pride in their founding document. Such citizens will not, however, be simply taking on faith that institutions and principles established by previous generations continue to provide a solid basis for American public life.
Informed citizens will also be better equipped to decide whether further amendments are needed and to evaluate competing claims about contested issues, such as the scope of the Second Amendment and the extent to which the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy.
Perhaps the most important lesson that Americans can learn from studying the Constitution is that ordinary men and women working together can accomplish a great deal. The Constitution is typically portrayed as the product of a small group of political elites. And while there is considerable merit to this portrayal, this is not the whole story.
As Elizabeth Beaumont demonstrates in “The Civic Constitution: Civic Visions and Struggles in the Path Toward a Constitutional Democracy,” the decisions of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were constrained by the demands of legislators and voters in their home states. Many of the most aristocratic proposals – such as Alexander Hamilton’s proposal for a senate and president that served for life – were dismissed because they could not be sold to a public that had recently fought a war in order to secure the ability to rule themselves.
Subsequent changes to the Constitution, such as the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage amendments, were also, in part, due to citizen agitation and mobilization. Furthermore, ordinary men and women have played a vital role in actualizing the rules and principles outline in the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s declaration in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schooling is incompatible with the 14th Amendment would have been less revolutionary if participants in the Civil Rights Movement had not fought to make sure the ruling was implemented.
What is particularly notable about Sept. 17 is that it honors both the Constitution and the citizens – past and present – who have shaped and been shaped by it. Of this, I am sure Jefferson would approve.
Dr. Nora Hanagan is the managing director of the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions.