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Commentary: Constitution Day — it's no Fourth of July

By Jim Kennedy, jkennedy@theaegis.com

3:40 PM EDT, September 24, 2012

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Sept. 17 came and went with relatively little fanfare, though its significance to U.S. history was noted by a few people speaking at public meetings in Harford County last week and the week before.

Coincidentally, Sept. 17 marked the head of the year 5773, and the start of the High Holidays in the Jewish calendar, but these are movable feasts. Given their importance, I don't want to ignore them, but they're not the key Sept. 17 observance I'm concerned about for this essay.

Since 1787, Sept. 17 has marked the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the framework for government established by that cast of people as diverse in their thinking as they were homogenous in their being white men of the property-owning class.

This year marked the 225th anniversary of the signing of the constitution, but interestingly the date is never marked by lighting the night sky with fireworks and filling the afternoon with parades and parties. Such activities are, of course, reserved for July 4, marking the 1776 signing of a document wherein the fledgling United States agreed to break away from the English Crown.

In other words, independence was declared and 11 years later the Founding Fathers, as we refer to them, got around to agreeing on a workable national government. For most of the Revolutionary War, the states operated under the Articles of Confederation government, which had authority to do almost nothing, had almost no money and almost no ability to pay the troops fighting in the field, or provide them with food, uniforms or ammunition.

It became clear the Articles government — which consisted of a single legislative body or Congress, a word whose archaic roots mean "walk together" — wasn't working. It turns out no one was walking together, at least from an organizational standpoint. The Revolution had been over since 1982, but the nation was not particularly unified. The states agreed to send delegations to overhaul the Articles, but the first thing they did was scrap that outline and start from scratch.

They very much were starting from scratch, as there were no governments to speak of that had anything resembling a written framework. Most countries were, for practical purposes, the private property of royal families subject to the whim of a king.

It came to pass that the founders liked the unity and efficiency afforded by a king, but were ever-suspicious of a government dominated by one person. Thus, they came up with a replacement for the king, a president, who was (and remains) chosen in a round-about way by the people. Keeping the single leader in check was a legislature, regarded as so important by the founders that the legislature, not the office of president, is the first branch of government outlined in Article I. An independent court system was established to keep tabs on the president and legislature, and these in turn kept tabs on each other and the courts.

A few paragraphs back, I made note of the founders as being diverse of opinion, even as they were of similar, fairly well-to-do, backgrounds. It is this diversity of opinion I'd like to dwell on for the balance of the essay. The reason I'd like to dwell on it is because of a particular comment I often see in print or hear in conversation, on TV and on the radio. That comment, though it varies in form, is essentially that the Founding Fathers would be unpleasantly surprised by the state of the union.

In my estimation, some of them would. Others would be pleasantly surprised. Still others would probably claim this is what they had in mind all along. I come to this conclusion from reading about the debates and depictions of personality that went into putting together the founding document whose anniversary is marked Sept. 17. It took a lot of time and effort for this particular cast of founding fathers to come to an agreement on how to manage the nation. When finally they did agree, it's probably fair to say no single delegate was 100 percent happy with the Constitution, but enough of them were satisfied enough with it to vote for its approval.

In other words, it was put together by people who disagreed on a lot of issues, but reached a number of compromises, and came up with something they could work with. As it turns out, with a few modifications enacted over the ensuing two centuries, it continues to be an imperfect framework that allows the nation to persist, and even thrive, without being taken over by a king, dictator or ruling junta.

Is this what the founders had in mind? Who the heck knows. They're not here to ask. Some of them, famously Thomas Jefferson, were of the do what I say, not what I do, tradition of government. On paper, Jefferson was all about making sure the states remained preeminent in the national government, and strictly limiting the power of the executive. In practice, he authorized the Louisiana Purchase, largely without any meaningful authorization from either Congress or the states. The move doubled the national territory and is regarded as a positive turning point in national history, but, if President Jefferson had followed the written frameworks outlined by Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, he'd probably have called the purchase illegal and railed against it.

Go figure.

The reality of any point in history, and probably in any nation, is that it's very easy to make a claim that some revered historic figure would side with the person making the argument. Predicting how a dead person would react to a particular set of modern circumstances is largely a fool's errand.

In my mind, rather than trying to divine what someone else would have done, the better course of action is to do what the founders did: take into consideration the problems at hand, and come up with a plan everyone, or most everyone, is comfortable with, even if no one thinks the plan is ideal.

It may not be efficient, but it isn't supposed to be. As one of the strongest advocates for democracy in the modern era, Winston Churchill is credited with pointing out, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. While Churchill was from the country the founders fought against, it's likely some of them would have agreed with him, while others would have disagreed and still others would have laughed and made rude comments about his mother being American, and of low birth.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree: the founders were a lot like us, or U.S.