It’s a Constitutional Republic, But Can We Keep It?
By John W. Whitehead
Throughout the month of September, the National Archives will be commemorating the 220th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution with a series of panel discussions, appearances by actors dressed up as the Founders and a birthday cake. Federal law also mandates that on Constitution Day, September 17, all high schools, colleges and universities across the country that receive federal funds host educational events about the Constitution.
However, the Constitution is so much more than an aging relic. Formally adopted on September 17, 1787, it has long served as the bulwark of American freedom and as an example for struggling nations worldwide. Yet since 9/11, the rights enshrined in the Constitution, particularly those in the Bill of Rights, have come under constant attack.
Indeed, the protections and limitations on government power that were once so greatly prized by America’s Founders seem to be rapidly disappearing. Governmental tentacles now invade every facet of our lives, with agents of the government listening in on our telephone calls and reading our emails. The president continues to expand his powers by centralizing power in his own office, claiming the right to torture terrorist suspects and deciding who will have the right to a lawyer and receive a hearing before a judge. And technology, which has developed at a rapid pace, offers those in power more invasive and awesome tools than ever before.
As government invariably, perhaps inevitably, oversteps its authority, Americans are faced with the pressing need to maintain the Constitution’s checks against governmental power and abuse. After all, it was not idle rhetoric that prompted the framers of the Constitution to begin with the words “We the people.”
Throughout the extraordinary document that is the Constitution and Bill of Rights, there is an implicit assumption that we, the people, will preserve our democratic rights by acting responsibly in our enjoyment of them. The framers of the Constitution knew very well that whenever and wherever democratic governments had failed, it was because the people had abdicated their responsibility as guardians of freedom. Moreover, they knew that whenever in history the people denied this responsibility, an authoritarian regime would arise to deny the people the right to govern themselves.
Such was the case in Nazi Germany. Despite Adolf Hitler’s assertion that it is lucky “for rulers that men cannot think,” he came to power not because the German people failed to think but because they failed to think clearly and act responsibly. The people were aware of Hitler’s goals when they voted to approve him as Der Füehrer. Nazi literature, including statements of the Nazi plans for the future, had papered the country for a decade before Hitler assumed power. And Hitler’s blueprint for totalitarianism, Mein Kampf, had sold more than 200,000 copies between 1925 and 1932. However, the German people were poisoned by the enveloping climate of ideas that they came to accept as important. At a certain point, the trivial became important, and obedience to the state in pursuit of security over freedom became predominant.
Fast forward 70 years, and you will witness an eerily similar scene unfolding in America. While many Americans sit with their eyes glued to the television set or a computer screen, the trivial has come to predominate over the knowledge of our basic rights and freedoms. Indeed, most Americans are clueless about what is in the Constitution, trusting instead in the government to keep them safe at any cost. Hence, if this great experiment in democracy fails, we will have only ourselves to blame—not the politicians, the media or threats to our security.
CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow recognized the critical role Americans play in the success or failure of our nation. Amidst the Red Scare of the 1950s, when people were afraid to speak out against the paranoia being propagated through the media and the government, Murrow boldly spoke up. On March 9, 1954, on his CBS television show See It Now, Murrow said the following—a statement very apropos for today:
We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies, and whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create the situation of fear; he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
Thus, if we are to maintain our freedoms, we must do more than talk. We must act—and act responsibly, keeping in mind that the duties of citizenship extend beyond the act of voting. Indeed, as citizens, we must be willing to stand and fight to protect our freedoms. This is true patriotism in action.
Loving your country, then, does not mean being satisfied with the status quo or the way government is being administered. Indeed, sometimes love of country will entail carrying a picket sign or going to jail, if necessary, to preserve liberty. And it will mean speaking up for those with whom you might disagree.
As history teaches, it is the vigilance of “we the people” that is necessary to maintain our freedoms. Thus, it is up to us to ensure that we remain free. Indeed, as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention trudged out of Independence Hall on September 17, 1787, an anxious woman in the crowd waiting at the entrance inquired of Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
“A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”