Odds are you are the typical person who woke up last Thursday and went all day without realizing that it was Constitution Day, the 218th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America. How unpatriotic.
“What’s the big deal?” you ask as you change into your American flag-patterned Chubbies and grab your ‘USA undefeated WWI & II’ trucker hat. “Isn’t the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July more important?”
To which I respond: maybe. Even if you didn’t start your morning with an off-key rendition of the National Anthem that woke your roommates up at 6 a.m., Constitution Day still merits recognition if only because it reminds us that it did not have to be this way.
The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, which means that we were a nation for 11 years before our current constitution was signed, 13 if you count the time it took to ratify.
What happened to those years in between? Sure, a few of those were spent in war, but the rest of the time the nation was governed under the Articles of Confederation. These didn’t last and easily gave way to the Constitution – ‘easily’ here meaning without any sort of civil war.
What was so different about the Constitution that made it so much more durable than the Articles? Ask a Constitutional expert and I’m sure he could give you any number of reasons from increased taxation power to the separation of powers, but the difference seems to me to be something more foundational.
This foundation can perhaps be understood best by asking the question, “Whom does the government serve?” Ask anyone this question about the Constitution and they will almost invariably say, “The People.” If you asked someone this question about the Articles, however, the answer is a bit more interesting.
Whereas the Constitution begins with ‘We the People’ in letters to rival those of Hancock’s signature, the Articles begin with “We the undersigned Delegates of the States.” The Articles of Confederation was a document obsessed with making sure that the States maintained sovereignty, an idea more similar in spirit with the European Union than our current constitution.
The result of the Articles of Confederation was a federal government that could make treaties with other nations, raise taxes, pass laws and raise armies, but had absolutely no ability to enforce anything it did. What could and would happen was that the states would simply ignore Federal requests for taxes and soldiers with impunity. Everything that a government should be able to do to take care of its citizens the early American government could only do if each individual state was in the right mood.
This was a disaster, and it wasn’t long before a new document was written, detailing a stronger and therefore more dangerous central government, without direct loyalties to the states. This was radical. Without getting into the details, this change in style of government, from one where the federal government was accountable to states to one where it became accountable to all its citizens directly, represented an enormous shift in political thought.
By creating a national government tied to the people, the citizens of the different states became tied to each other as a nation. Perhaps the most basic result of this is how nowadays few will regard themselves as a ‘Texan’ or an ‘Iowan’ when travelling abroad but instead as an ‘American’ first and then their home state.
Our nation did not have to be this way, and the change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution is a prime example of that. So as you patriotically eat hamburgers and watch fireworks next summer, remember that this nation did not become great on the day it began. Rather, its greatness came about in the work of the following years.