Monday, September 17, 2012

Act Well Your Part: A Constitution Day Celebration

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, as well as Constitution Day, when the constitutional convention participants signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787.  According to the Jewish Calendar, today is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, a time to commemorate the relationship between God and humanity.  The shofar sounds as a call to repentance and in memory of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac.  The celebration of the new year also anticipates Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

This day represents both the birth of the United States of America, and rebirth in a new year.  To celebrate the signing of the U.S. Constitution, a large crowd gathered at the McKay Events Center at Utah Valley University to take part in a program that included patriotic music and a speech by author David McCullough.  The music and the speeches contained much worth remembering, but what follows is only a sample of the proceedings.

President Matt Holland recalled the words of William Gladstone who described the U.S. Constitution as "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man", but Holland was careful to remind the audience of the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the  Constitution, a relationship that Abraham Lincoln best articulated:

"All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of 'Liberty to all'--the principle that clears the path for all--gives hope to all--and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, 'fitly spoken' which has proved an 'apple of gold' to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture.
So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken." 

President Holland also drew upon Alexander Hamilton's introduction to the Federalist:

"AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

McCullough, a masterful historian and story-teller, provided many insights into the founding of the United States of America and the importance of the U.S. Constitution.  Before beginning the brief tour of early American History, he reminded the audience that the founding fathers were not gods, but real human beings with real weaknesses and real challenges.  In spite of the personal failings and the adversities that they faced, McCullough admonished that we should develop and teach a deep respect and gratitude for the miracle that was accomplished by these men and women.

McCullough called upon the audience to become more than a "nation of spectators".  When compared to the difficulties that these pioneers of our nation faced, McCullough remarked that we are a generation of "softies".  Ignorance and Freedom are mutually exclusive.  "We are accountable," he said, recounting the courage that was required to face the British armies.

After calling upon members of the audience to "act well your part"(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man), he quoted John Adams:

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. ”

According to McCullough, such wisdom and knowledge are integral to our individual and collective "pursuit of happiness". 

The evening came to a close with the university symphony orchestra playing a stirring rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever.  I could not help but think that while we sat comfortably in our chairs listening to the music, elsewhere, American flags were being torn down, desecrated, shredded and burned.