It’s easy to skip over Constitution Day, September 17, on the calendar. Some might find it odd to have a holiday commemorating the signing of a document—especially a government document.
But there’s a reason we celebrate Constitution Day: The Constitution was written for us—the generations of Americans who came after the founding, who pursued happiness and flexed our freedoms while the Constitution protected us from tyranny. It’s a document whose chief purpose isn’t to establish government control but to limit it—to ensure Americans have room to live, work, trade, and innovate without government breathing down our necks.
Harvard Professor Danielle Allen says she loves the Constitution “because it is the world’s greatest teaching document for one part of the story of freedom: the question of how free and equal citizens check and channel power both to protect themselves from domination by one another and to secure their mutual protection from external forces that might seek their domination.”
PLF’s mission is to protect and strengthen individual liberties. We sue the government when it violates Americans’ constitutional rights. As you might imagine, Constitution Day is a big deal for us. Many of our attorneys have written about the holiday’s significance and why it should never be neglected. Here’s a selection of our writing on Constitution Day—and the Constitution it celebrates.
By Timothy Snowball
We celebrate Constitution Day because that historic document, along with its later-affixed Bill of Rights, is the legal means by which “We the People” ensure that the government serves its vital purposes without violating our rights.
Sure, a lot has changed since 1787. The Constitution, as originally written, left a lot of people out. The long fight for equality for blacks, women, and other groups continues to this day. But one thing has not changed: the need for a government that will secure our individual rights and do so without abusing its powers.
The fight for rights is the story of America.
Ultimately, the Constitution was not enacted for the politicians, pollsters or the pundits. The Constitution was enacted by the people for the benefit of the people.
By Mark Miller
Our Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution to separate the powers among the three branches of our federal government to ensure no single authority could amass too much unchecked power. But today’s elected officials ignore that fundamental demand and grant too much authority to one branch—the executive branch—of our government. The first generation of American leaders rebelled against just such a system in the British monarchy and feared it rearing its head again.
In some respects, it has. Our legislators—the senators and congressmen—too willingly pass laws that cede authority to an “alphabet soup” of executive agencies, be they the Department of Education, Labor, Commerce, EPA, or Interior, among others.
To be sure, these agencies have an important and proper role to play. But our legislators abdicate their constitutional responsibility when they pass open-ended laws that do not clearly instruct the public as to what is legal and illegal. Because the laws are vague, Congress delegates to agency bureaucrats the power to draft rules purportedly consistent with those laws. Too often, the bureaucrats then draft and enforce rules which call for enforcement on a case-by-case basis, making it difficult for everyday Americans to know what is legal and illegal and plan their actions accordingly.
By Anastasia Boden
Throughout history, civil rights leaders have relied on the Constitution in speeches, in protests, and in court. Frederick Douglass called it a “glorious liberty document.” Susan B. Anthony argued that if she “could get a practical application of the Constitution,” it would protect her “and all women in the enjoyment of perfect equality of rights everywhere.” Why then, when deciding whether our nation is fundamentally good or fundamentally flawed and how to build a more just society, not one of the popular reading lists suggest consulting the Constitution?
Since our founding, civil rights advocates have relied on the Constitution in their campaign for equality. Perhaps the most influential advocate for equality in all of history, Martin Luther King, Jr., repeatedly referenced the document in his addresses. In his “Mountaintop speech,” King said that when people were “sitting in” at lunch counters to protest segregation, “they were really standing up for the best in the American dream and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” These words, uttered just before the famous line that he had “been to the mountaintop” and “seen the promised land,” remind us that our constitutional tradition is one of fighting for freedom from oppressive and unjust laws. They affirm that the document is, as he later said, a “promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Constitution protects minorities of all kinds, from religious to political to racial minorities. The very reason our government was structured as a representative republic rather than a direct democracy was to ensure that minority rights would not be subverted to the will of the majority. Given its explicit protections for freedom of conscience, free speech, privacy, and equal treatment before the law, the Constitution has been the driving force of nearly every civil rights victory at the Supreme Court. Indeed, as one historian said, “No marginalized group in modern American history could have appealed to the Federal government for redress without it.”
The Constitution is more than a document laying out the structure of our government. The Constitution is a guiding light for America’s founding principles of liberty and individual rights. Constitution Day isn’t about a 200-plus-year-old piece of parchment; it’s about the principles and ideals enshrined in that document. And America can never afford to forget those ideals.