Sunday is the 230th Anniversary of the US Constitution. The document was finalized in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, and we celebrate that day every year as Constitution Day. Today we’re reminded we need to fully grasp the heritage we have inherited.
And in 2017, so many do. From the Women’s Marches across the country in January, to the spontaneous demonstrations against the President’s ill-considered Muslim ban, to a flood of first-time candidates pledging to run for office, to a dramatic uptick in citizens reaching out to members of Congress by mail, phone, email and in person, we see that the civic roles assigned to us by James Madison and others still have vitality and purpose.
Recall what had brought the drafters to this pivotal moment: They had lived through the pain and triumph of the Revolutionary War and then saw the nation founder in its initial years, its inadequate national government unable to bind together the states. And so the framers gathered to create a national government, with checks and balances to avoid abuses of power that they could easily foresee.
They were worried about government dominating individuals. They were worried about a national government dominating the states. And they were worried that the newly created office of the President could put the nation at risk of a power grab by a single individual.
And so they tried to temper these concerns by building in the checks and balances we learn about in elementary school civics lessons. The Constitution had many imperfections and we had to fight a war to correct the most egregious of them — the embrace of slavery, in direct contradiction of the equality principle we professed in the Declaration of Independence. But today I give thanks that the Constitution assigned us all roles to play in the continuing effort to perfect the union.
Congress is the Article 1 branch because the framers wanted the people’s elected legislative body to be “first among equals” with a primacy over the President whose powers are described in Article 2. The federal judiciary created in Article 3 received the unusual guarantee of life tenure so they could face down actions of Congress or the President without fear for their jobs.
The press was assigned a critical role in the First Amendment. States were given wide berth to manage their own affairs.
But the most important powers were those given to individuals. The power to vote, thankfully expanded over time (though we have work to do to protect this right, as some try to erode it). The freedom to worship as one pleases and to express oneself, designed as much to prod society to progress as to protect the individual. And the power “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
From the very beginning, the framers understood that the power of the people was not just limited to casting a ballot, but extended much more widely.
There are so many anxieties about politics today and about the direction of the country. But on this Constitution Day, I celebrate the role of the individual to vote, to speak, to peacefully protest and to shape, through civic activism, the direction of the country. And I see throughout my Commonwealth and country a great energy and spirit to do just that.
It is this popular activism that stopped Congress from a disastrous one-party repeal of the Affordable Care Act, despite repeated votes to do so in the past. People power works and we need more of it.
We must always balance that popular activism with a requirement to be peaceful — violence has no place in civic discussion. We saw the dead-end of violence in my state, as white supremacists brought hatred, bigotry, assault and even death to Charlottesville in August. I am glad that Congress unanimously condemned this violence and the attitudes that inspire it. The President has now signed our resolution.
We cannot tolerate violence by anyone, of any political viewpoint, if we truly embrace the principles expressed in the Constitution.
So let’s vigorously play the roles that we have the fortune to inhabit. So many around the world don’t have the freedoms we do. We can be powerful in our energy and activism if we do so peacefully and respectfully while allowing all others to do the same.