Separation of powers. Federalism. Taxes.
On this Constitution Day, ordinary people may not think they have any say or stake in lofty constitutional matters when we talk about constitutional questions using these terms. And yet, Americans have strongly held opinions about whether the president can or should engage in war (or at least war-like behavior) with Syria without congressional authorization (separation of powers), whether the states or should determine their own marijuana, abortion, and gun laws (federalism), and whether Obamacare is legal (taxes).
The Constitution is probably the last thing on a person's mind when he grabs his gun and calls his dog to head out to the field for a day of hunting, when she makes the difficult decision to obtain an abortion, or when a same-sex couple is lawfully exchanges vows to be legally married. And yet, none of these everyday activities that give our lives meaning would be possible without the constitutional protections that give us these rights. Americans' lived experience touches on constitutional law every day.
The average life span of constitutions around the globe adopted after 1789 is a mere 17 years and yet tomorrow, Sept. 17, 2013, marks the 226th anniversary of the day that the United States' founders signed the Constitution and it became the governing document for these United States of America. Our Constitution provides all Americans a framework in which we conduct our culture wars. Just this year, the Supreme Court decided cases on affirmative action, gay marriage, and voting rights. The peaceful transfer of power and the (relatively) peaceful expression of even abhorrent ideas further demonstrate the power and importance of this founding document.
Very few people are likely to agree with every Supreme Court decision about how these difficult political matters are constitutionally resolved, but we should be united in our appreciation of the constitutional framework which allows us to make these decisions, carry out this transfer of power, and tolerate free speech.
To be sure, there have been constitutional mistakes in the drafting and interpretation of the United States Constitution. Considering human beings to be three-fifths of a person and depriving Americans their freedom on the basis of race are significant and shameful events in U.S. history. And yet, with time, we have learned from our constitutional errors. And they shed new light as we consider new challenges today. Of course, the United States is not the only successful constitutional democracy in the world and there are many great nations who change or redraft the constitution. In fact, an old joke tells of a French citizen asking for a copy of the French Constitution at the library and he is informed that they do not carry periodicals.
Today is Constitution Day; spend some time with it. Whether it is reading it online, watching a cartoon with your young children, something more serious for your older children, ordering your own free copy of the constitution, or attending a Constitution Day event, take a moment to think about the Constitution. In Chicago, at least seven universities are celebrating Constitution Day with events free and open to the public with other terrific events in Washington DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Houston, to name just a few. Your local college, university, or library likely is sponsoring a Constitution Day event.
It's September 17, and I can tell you where your constitution is. It is all around you.