Civil and Human Rights

OP-ED: Fixing the Founders’ flaws

Sept. 17 is Constitution Day. To mark this occasion, the president will issue a proclamation. Members of Congress will deliver speeches and take to social media. And our schools will teach our children valuable lessons about our Constitution and its heroic Framers.

If past is prologue, these materials will be heavy on George Washington, James Madison, and the “miracle at Philadelphia” — and understandably so. In the summer of 1787, Washington and his generation crafted the most durable form of government in world history, and Constitution Day itself — Sept. 17 — commemorates the day that the Framers signed the original document before sending it to the states for ratification.

However, our constitutional story didn’t end with that hot summer in Philadelphia. And, on a day set aside to celebrate our Constitution, we should embrace our nation’s entire constitutional story — not just the familiar tale of our Founding Fathers, but also the less familiar stories surrounding the amendments that “We the People” have ratified since then.

This is all the more important as we prepare for a key set of anniversaries — the 150th anniversaries of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which many scholars describe as our nation’s “Second Founding.” These anniversaries begin on Feb. 1, 2015, with President Lincoln’s decision to sign the Thirteenth Amendment before sending it to the states for ratification, and end with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment five years later, in February 2020.

While the American people rightly revere Washington, Madison, and their fellow Framers, it took the heroic efforts of President Abraham Lincoln and his generation to create the “more perfect Union” that we live in today. It’s only after the ratification of the Second Founding Amendments that the Constitution begins to emerge fully as the inspiring document that it is today, redeeming us from the Framers’ original sin of slavery and giving our nation what Lincoln promised at Gettysburg — “a new birth of freedom.” A century and a half later, this Second Founding deserves a proper celebration — beginning with Constitution Day 2014.

As part of the Constitution’s Bicentennial in 1987, Americans from across the political spectrum came together to celebrate the Framers’ staggering achievement, with Congress funding a commission devoted to the celebration and Chief Justice Warren Burger resigning from the Supreme Court to lead it. Along the way, children competed in essay contests and rhetorical competitions. Ordinary citizens gathered in mock conventions, read newly published books on the Founding, and enjoyed parades, picnics, and fireworks displays. And on Constitution Day 1987, at the pinnacle of the celebration, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. President Lincoln and his generation deserve a similarly fitting tribute.

At a time of partisan rancor, this celebration of the Second Founding provides us with an opportunity to reunite around constitutional first principles.

While the Civil War and Reconstruction have long divided us, the values embodied in the Second Founding Amendments — liberty, equality, due process, and the right to vote — ought to bring us all together, regardless of party or ideology. A century and a half later, no one is calling for a return to chattel slavery. No one denies the importance of equal protection and due process of law. And no one thinks that access to the ballot box should be determined by the color of one’s skin. Rather, Americans from across the political spectrum see these Amendments as quintessential examples of “the better angels our nature” at work.

Beginning this Constitution Day, and continuing through the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment in 2020, we should work together to build a celebration that’s worthy of the Second Founding’s remarkable constitutional achievements — one that restores the Second Founding Amendments to their rightful place at the center of the American constitutional story.

This article also appeared in at least the following additional outlets:

*  The Detroit (MI) Free Press (online)

*  The Iowa City (IA) Press-Citizen (online)

*  The Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun (online)

*  The Montgomery (AL) Advertiser (online)

*  The Fort Collins (CO) Coloradoan (online)

*  The Great Falls (MT) Tribune (online)

*  The St. Cloud (MN) Times (online)

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