The blessings of liberty are not secure if our citizenry is apathetic

Illusatration by Forest Byrd

Peace can be more problematic than war.

The American colonies broke from Great Britain in a bloody revolution, but we did not become a nation until we adopted a constitution.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, each state acted on its own with no concern for the broad purposes of the republic. States with their own inflated currencies raised tariff barriers against each other. The essential trade with Great Britain was shut down; commerce was in shambles.

Some took up arms and many wondered whether the rebellion had been in vain.

Our Constitution was drafted against this backdrop of desperation, hammered out through the long hot summer of 1787 in Philadelphia. Compromises were struck between big states and small states, between slave states and free states.

What emerged was the supreme law of our land, forming our government and providing for the rights and liberties of the American people.

When federal officials take the oath of office, they promise to "preserve, protect, and defend" not the country but the Constitution.

The Constitution, with its all-important Bill of Rights, protecting individual liberties against government encroachment, has not only stood the test of time but been shaped over time by the society it governs.

In the first part of the 20th Century, Charles A. Beard wrote in his book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, that the Revolution was a class war, pitting the Patriot underclass against the Loyalist Tories while the Constitution returned men of wealth to power.

Certainly the framers of the Constitution excluded women, excluded those who didn't own land, and excluded those who were enslaved. One of the compromises between the southern states, which wanted to count all slaves in determining the number of congressmen although the slaves could not vote, and the northern states, which opposed this move, was to count a slave as three-fifths of a man.
Outrageous" Certainly.

But, the Constitution allows for change: The 13th Amendment in 1865 abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment in 1868 made the former slaves citizens with civil rights, and the 15th Amendment in 1870 gave them the right to vote. Women, too, in time were given the right to vote — in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

Many of these rights were hard won. So it saddens us to see them neglected. Only about half of Americans vote anymore, and that's in a presidential election year. Local elections fare worse. Tuesday was Primary Day and, in Albany County’s lead race, for comptroller, fewer than a quarter of the enrolled Democrats voted.

We were heartened, though, to visit Pine Bush Elementary School on Tuesday morning. Greetings of "Happy Constitution Day" filled the air. It was Sept. 17, two-hundred-and-twenty years after the Constitution was signed. The observance is mandated by federal law. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia added a rider to the 2004 Omnibus Spending Bill, requiring schools that receive federal funds to "hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17."

But for the Pine Bush teachers and students we talked to, it wasn't a matter of dutifully slogging through an observance for federal funding. The joy of discovery and sharing important values predominated. September 17 was truly a day of celebration.

The fifth-graders we talked to had studied the Constitution and learned about it so they could teach the younger students in their school.

One trio we talked to understood the three branches of government set up by the Constitution well enough to explain them in their own words, in clear, succinct terms.

Another group had carefully written out the preamble: "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."

These children are the posterity of the framers of the Constitution. But the blessings of liberty are not secure, nor is justice or tranquility, if our citizenry is apathetic.

We hope others will follow the example of the Pine Bush pupils and study the Constitution with both care and passion.

Senator Byrd, who says he carries a copy of the Constitution with him wherever he goes and studies its provisions every day, has stated, "We cannot defend and protect this dream if we are ignorant of the Constitution's history and how it works. Ignorance is ultimately the worst enemy of a people who want to be free."

There is a lot of freedom yet to be won; we can't afford to be ignorant.

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