Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 3, 2007

Quibbling with a Founding Father

“I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival… it ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.” ~ John Adams

Pardon me while I quibble with one of the Founding Fathers.

The first vice president and second president of the United States, Adams either predicted or wrote the template for our Independence Day celebrations honoring the day that the Declaration of Independence was signed.

I’ll grant that the Declaration of Independence is an important and beautifully written document.

However, I don’t think it’s the most important document in our nation’s history. I give that honor to the United States Constitution.

Why? As the federal judiciary Web site explains, “The United States Constitution establishes both the government’s power and the fundamental rights belonging to all people who reside within the borders,” and “One of the primary roles of any Constitution is to limit the powers of a government by informing all of the citizenry of those powers a government may legitimately possess.”

So, while the Fourth of July is thought of as this nation’s birthday, and is the most celebrated of this nation’s patriotic holidays, I think that Constitution Day deserves all the fuss and hoopla that Adams prescribed for Independence Day.

I’ll bet most people don’t know we have a Constitution Day. It occurs on Sept. 17. This year marks the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But I’ll excuse you for not knowing about the holiday, because it didn’t even exist until 2005.

It was created in an amendment to a spending bill that renamed Citizenship Day to Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

The Constitution doesn’t even get a holiday all to itself. Not only that, federal employees don’t get a paid holiday on Constitution Day, thus, neither do private sector employees.

That’s not the only insult heaped on celebrations of the Constitution. According to the Constitution Center Web site, “Established on November 26, 1789, the first national “Thanksgiving Day” was originally created by George Washington as a way of “giving thanks” for the Constitution.”

Sadly, most folks – myself included, until very recently – don’t know about the original object of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday due because it’s a celebration of gratitude that remains unscathed by the crass commercialization that’s taken over Christmas. Now that I know about its patriotic constitutional overtones, I appreciate it even more.

It even gives me a rare reason to agree with Tony Snow, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, who said, “If you think Independence Day is America’s defining holiday, think again. Thanksgiving deserves that title, hands-down.”

Despite the stepchild treatment the Constitution gets in the federal holiday department, I think it deserves better.

I’m not alone – lots of civil libertarians revere the Constitution and worry that, especially in our post-Sept. 11 world, we’re making dangerous tradeoffs in the liberties granted to us in the Constitution based on fear.

We see those threats in attempts to write discrimination into the Constitution with a proposal for an amendment to ban gay marriage, with expanded governmental powers in the Patriot Act, with the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with the efforts to sanction “enhanced interrogation” techniques (that is, torture), with warrantless wiretapping programs, and more.

I wonder if enhanced celebrations and understanding of our Constitution would help counteract those threats.

One group, Constitution Day, Inc., has its own ideas about how Constitution Day ought to be celebrated: “Our mission is to perpetuate the Constitution to each succeeding generation. To promote the annual national simultaneous recitation of the Preamble across all of America, especially in the schools. To involve all the 50 states in the roll call of states in the order they ratified the Constitution or were admitted to the Union…”

It may not have the shock-and-awe or ooh-and-ahh factor of fireworks, but it’s a start.

And I couldn’t agree more with the the last two sentences of the group’s mission statement: “… To educate each new generation to the uniqueness and brilliance of our Constitution, the most perfect governmental document conceived by man. To show the need to protect and defend it to maintain our liberties.”

As the Annenberg Foundation’s Constitution Day Web site proclaims, “Celebrate the birthday of your government.”

Let’s do it with as much fervor on Sept. 17 as we do on July 4.

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