While the Constitution seems to have become the realm of Ivy-League lawyers and a handful of elite judges, it hasn’t always been that way. At one time, there was widespread interest in ensuring the general public had a firm understanding of America’s founding document. In fact, the gavel had barely fallen on the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia before publishers at The Pennsylvania Packet rushed to print the Constitution in their journal ensuring a constitutional DNA would be embedded in the people. Knowing the stakes had never been higher, James Madison joined Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in a series of explanatory pieces, the Federalist Papers, to assure the public that our system of government would be marked by individual sovereignty, government restraint, and an elaborate system of checks and balances.
Today, we may have forgotten how approachable the U.S. Constitution really is but that is likely because we have fooled ourselves into thinking the Constitution is the stuff of history. Relinquished to the recesses of our minds with the periodic table from high school chemistry, the Constitution might seem like something we learned in school. But really, the Constitution is much more than our dusty past or forgotten civics classes. The Constitution continues as a legally binding agreement linking We the People to one another. It’s the most relevant declaration we have of our unity-- and a promise to future generations that we are in this together.
To be fair, the Constitution hasn’t always reflected the best of our American idealism, and the history of its interpretation too-often reflects the cultural realities of humanity’s struggle with equality. Even though founders like Madison sought to enshrine the natural rights of people in the Constitution, they did not end slavery, and women would have to wait and work more than 110 years to even vote. The Union, while more perfect with every Amendment (except prohibition, perhaps) has always needed the ardent attention of us as citizens to strengthen its words and sharpen the aspirations of our founding idea; that we are the governors of ourselves. In other words, we are the government and hold the responsibility.
And this, friends, is why we need to get back to basics. This is why we need to explore and understand our Constitution and engage with both our history and our present. Getting a handle on the fundamental principles will help us extend the best of our democratic nature so that each time we speak, or vote, or march we can be assured that our constant companion is the promise we have made to one another.
This spring and fall Montpelier is offering a Constitution 101 course. Think of it as a back to basics opportunity to stretch your mind and renew your sense of what can really make each of us better citizens. Hope you can join us!
Constitution 101: A More Perfect Union
May 12, 2018 and again September 29, 2018
1:00pm-4pm, reception to follow
Claude Moore Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier
FREE for Montpelier Members
$50 non-members, includes complimentary Montpelier Membership