Huzzah! for Constitution Day

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Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor

 

On September 17, 1787, the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia signed the United States Constitution. On September 16, 2012, the University of Dallas in Irving held its 38th annual Constitution Day celebration. The event – which consists of a barbecued-dinner (lubricated by an open bar), a speech by a politics professor (this year, Dr. Leo Paul de Alvarez), and the alternately boisterous and solemn singing of patriotic songs and hymns – is, even in the context of our singular university, a singular affair.

Yes, singular. How else to describe an occasion wherein Dr. Richard Dougherty leads the singing of all 10 delightful verses of “Yankee Doodle”? On Constitution Day, northerners sing “Dixie” and the Confederate classic “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and southerners and Texans “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the jubilant “We Are Coming, Father Abra’am, 300,000 More.” One hundred and fifty years ago a nasty civil war rived this nation, yet today her citizens can sing her most divisive songs with all due gaiety and reverence. It’s a remarkable thing, really, this unity after such bloody discord. It speaks to the genius of our Constitution – both the written one, and the unwritten one existing in our hearts that de Alvarez spoke of in his talk.

Constitution Day, though, is more than just singular; it is necessary. It’s needed, first of all, at a university whose cultural coordinates point toward Athens and Rome, where it can be easy to forget the gratitude we owe our far-blessed country. But who needs Constitution Day most of all, and its unabashed, un-jingoistic patriotism, is America herself.

Just a few days ago I chanced upon a book in the library’s 25-cent rack that claimed that probably not one American in a hundred knows the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Well. Attendees to Constitution Day got a chance to sing, in unison with dozens of their countrymen, not merely the still-dimly-known first verse of our national anthem, but all four verses. While often dismissed as unsingable, or condemned for its martial flair, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is in fact a beautiful work of poetry. I would happily quote it at three-paragraphs’ length, but I’ll settle for this excerpt from the second verse:

“On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep, / Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes, / What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep, / As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?” I’m particularly fond of that last line – what a wonderful use of “fitfully,” and what fine phrasing in “half conceals, half discloses” – but each of the four verses, including the potent third and the awe-filled fourth, ought to be an honored part of the American patrimony.

Yet you don’t hear these words anywhere – unless you’re at UD on Constitution Day. I remember Flag Day being celebrated annually in my elementary school (“You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high-flying flag,” etc.); but, as though overt signs of patriotism are fit only for children, this American spirit did not accompany us through middle and high school: we didn’t sing the songs, we didn’t learn the history. We never really got to know George Washington as the Father of Our Country, nor did we cross to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark, campaign through Virginia with Grant and Lee, or write the American songbook with Gershwin and Porter.

America, by her schools, TV shows and movies, no longer passes on the songs and stories that once helped form us as her people. How could we then with any meaning call her “the land we love the best,” as the Civil War’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” would have us do? Her heroes and history are as unknown to many of us as are the lays of ancient Rome.

But take heart. Lest Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory” fade utterly to silence, there is Constitution Day at UD. Of all the things to be proud of about our school, this one ranks very high. For one night we are invited to honor, joyfully and intelligently, the land we love the best, and are called to remember that old wish and admonition, all the more urgent in dark, dark times:

“America! America! / God mend thine ev’ry flaw, / Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.”

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