From time to time, it’s refreshing to turn down all the political noise and think about what brings us together. This week, I had the good fortune to have one of those opportunities, when I celebrated “Constitution Day” with a visit to Shepherd University and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. It was the perfect place to be because it was at Shepherd University that Senator Byrd gave the inaugural “Constitution Day” address in 2005.
In the years since, the Center and the University have continued the tradition of “Constitution Day” lectures so that generation after generation of West Virginians can understand and appreciate what a masterpiece the United States Constitution is.
Senator Byrd wrote the law that created “Constitution Day” – to be celebrated every September 17, the anniversary of the “miracle in Philadelphia,” the signing of the Constitution in 1787. He often said that our freedom is “set forth and realized” in our Constitution. And for that reason, he felt it was vital that every American study it, honor it, and revere it.
Few Americans studied, honored and revered the Constitution the way Senator Byrd did. As most West Virginians know, he always kept a copy of the Constitution in his coat pocket. It was easy to reach for quick reference, which he often did, even in the middle of debates on the floor of the United States Senate.
But in his coat pocket, the Constitution also was close to his heart, right where it belonged. Senator Byrd had two great loves – the United States Senate and the State of West Virginia. But his two great passions were his wife – “fair” Erma, he called her – and the United States Constitution, the document from which this great country sprang.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks and our country’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in Senator Byrd’s thoughts when he delivered his inaugural “Constitution Day” address. The Constitution is important every day of America’s history, he said, but particularly so when “religiously inspired groups strike from wild dark places at the way of life that our Constitution guarantees for us.”
His counsel is as wise and as relevant now as it was then, as we see by new waves of anti-American violence abroad. The ideals of freedom, as “set forth and realized” in our Constitution, are what makes America the beacon of light in the “wild dark places” of the world.
Our Constitution is remarkably brief. Its full text runs less than eight thousand words. It takes only about 30 minutes to read. And yet, it is the supreme law of our great land.
Our Constitution isn’t perfect, however. In fact, we have had to amend it 27 times. And this year, the 225th anniversary of its signing, there are some Americans who believe the Constitution’s intricate system of checks and balances and separation of powers is to blame for the political gridlock in Washington.
But my reading of the Constitution is that this document is the opposite. In fact, the Constitution is the very thing that ties us together as Americans. It’s right there in the Preamble, the beginning of this great document – “We the people.”
It doesn’t begin with “We the parties.” And nowhere in the text of the Constitution will you find the words “Democrat” or “Republican.”
It is “we the people” – an idea that was quite remarkable in 1787, the idea that ordinary citizens would govern themselves under their own rules, not those of monarchs or despots or, for that matter, political parties.
Clearly, the excessive partisanship we see in Washington today threatens to drown out the voices of “we the people.” But it isn’t the Constitution that has let us down. It is the unwillingness of the political parties to come together to find common ground that keeps up from moving to higher ground.
In his “Constitution Day” address in 2005, Senator Byrd told the story of how Benjamin Franklin, emerging from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was asked what kind of government had been created. “A Republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”
That is ever the challenge, one well worth considering every day, not just Constitution Day. But I am fully confident that “we the people” of the United States of America, if we are faithful to ourselves and to each other,” will “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” that we ordained and established by our Constitution.
And I salute Shepherd University and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies for continually reminding us what our Constitution has meant to the cause of freedom, not just in America, but everywhere in the world.