Wednesday is Constitution Day! No, it’s not the day we test how many hot dogs your constitution can handle in 12 minutes. It’s not even a memorial for the USS Constitution, which is the world's oldest floating commissioned naval vessel.
It’s a celebration of a document. It is a day dedicated to the words that define and structure our nation, our freedom and our people.
There is something very American about celebrating ideas. Few people get up in the morning and think about the U.S. Constitution. Yet, they should. America is, at its heart, an ideal put down in words. It is a contract between its people establishing a limited government founded on individual rights and the consent of the governed. The words and meaning of the Constitution are as important today as when they were written 227 years ago.
While many things change, the Constitution remains the foundation for our nation. This document has seen us through a transformation from a small agrarian nation to a world leader. For over two centuries, the wisdom of the Founding Fathers has helped us overcome strife, and shaped and defined this country. It is the touchstone that we return to when we ask difficult questions about freedom of speech and protest.
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Unfortunately, the Constitution also is roundly misunderstood, under-studied and overlooked by many in our fast-paced society. This is disturbing, and not just because of the disservice we do to the many brilliant men and women who helped form this nation and sacrificed themselves for its survival. This ignorance threatens the very core of our nation and society. Our democracy is designed so that the power and legitimacy of our state lies not in the anointing of kings or lords, but in the will of the people.
We see this reality in the dominant news stories of the day. Each day brings new tests for our nation and Constitution. We grapple with tests to our freedom, our basic rights and our political participation. Understanding and defending our Constitution has never been more vital to our nation or our liberty.
One need only look at some of the big stories of this year to understand how important the Constitution continues to be. Everything from the events in Ferguson, Missouri, to the NSA spying scandal, to even a lawsuit against the President’s use of executive authority, call for us to remember and consider our Constitution.
As a nation, we depend on the Constitution to help us protect our democracy and define basic rights. What are the limits of police power? When can a person be searched? What rights to privacy exist? When can someone protest? When can government restrict a protest? When are authorities permitted to use lethal force? All around us swirl complex questions about freedom, privacy, justice, and government.
If the people lack the basic skills of citizenship and do not know the rights and duties of a citizen of the United States, then the very foundation of our democracy is vulnerable. Citizens need to know the Constitution, not just to honor the great Americans who came before us, but to exercise the sovereignty and authority that the Constitution vests within them.
Fortunately, Americans are recognizing the importance of the Constitution. Universities, institutes and other groups from across America are leading efforts to teach about our founding principles and commemorate the Constitution. The National Constitution Center, the Bill of Rights Institute, ConstitutionFacts.com, ConstitutionDay.com and many others have stepped in to make Constitution Day a true celebration of America and its founding.
The Philadelphia-based Jack Miller Center has led efforts to support Constitution Day programs at universities and colleges throughout the nation, as part of its ongoing efforts to support constitutional studies on campuses nationwide.
Kevin M. Wagner is associate professor and director of graduate studies in political science, LLS distinguished professor in current affairs, Florida Atlantic University.
At Florida Atlantic University, the events this year include a Constitutional Brain Bowl and a keynote address on the First Amendment by State Attorney Dave Aronberg. Also scheduled is a second Robert J. Bailyn Symposium on the First Amendment with a panel discussion: “The 1st Amendment and Campaign Finance Reform.” Faculty lectures on the Constitution and the reading of winning student essays on the role of the Constitution today are also planned. Visit www.fau.edu/jackmillerforum for details on Constitution Day 2014. Constitution Day at FAU is open to the university and community.