Okay, let’s see if you remember it. It’s the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Sometime around middle school you were supposed to memorize it. If you are like me, you will probably do about as well as Barney Fife did reciting the Preamble on the “Andy Griffith Show” years ago. (For a laugh, Google “Barney Fife preamble” and watch the YouTube clip.)
Here is the Preamble for you folks who may have forgotten: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence set forth the framework from which this country has grown. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and the other founding fathers crafted documents that have guided this country through prosperity and peril.
The Constitution is the supreme law of our country. According to History.com, “The U.S. Constitution established America’s national government and fundamental laws, and guaranteed certain basic rights for its citizens. It was signed on September 17, 1787, by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, presided over by George Washington. Under America’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, the national government was weak and states operated like independent countries. At the 1787 convention, delegates devised a plan for a stronger federal government with three branches–executive, legislative and judicial–along with a system of checks and balances to ensure no single branch would have too much power.” The Bill of Rights was ratified to the Constitution in 1791 due to concerns the states had over personal freedoms and rights, limitations on the power of government, and other issues not addressed by the Constitution.
Today, we often hear a politician, or someone in the media, state that a law, decree, or action is “unconstitutional.” And, in reality, often that opinion is based on their own political ideology, not a study of the Constitution itself. The Constitution is used by them to advance their political agenda, not as a rulebook to guide our country.
There are other threats to the Constitution, and some may be subtle. You hear someone state that the Constitution is a “living and breathing document.” Often that means that the person wants to change the original meaning of the Constitution to fit the current culture. That’s how the Constitution has been interpreted over the years, saying that there is a right to privacy, which somehow included the right to an abortion.
But other threats may be obvious. During War World II, the U.S. government rounded up and interred thousands of Japanese-American citizens, clearly against the Constitution. When asked about the legality, John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, stated, “If it is a question of the safety of the country, or the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.” So, thousands of U.S. citizens were removed from their homes during the war, and placed in concentration camps just because they were of Japanese heritage.
Today, September 17, is Constitution Day. It was on that day in 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document that became the foundation for our government and its laws. The Daughters of the American Revolution organization is urging local churches to ring their church bells at 4 PM on today in order to honor those who crafted the document and to highlight its significance to our country. There will also be a program at 4 PM today on the front steps of the Sampson County courthouse observing Constitution Day.
We may have forgotten the words to the Preamble. But if we treat the Constitution as “just a scrap of paper,” we might end up not enjoying the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Preamble that we memorized back during our school years.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]