Saving our nation despite us

The Constitution is America's lifesaver

A first draft

A first draft of the U.S. Constitution, hand-written and well-preserved - sits deep in the vaults in the library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. This, and other documents like it are kept under four separate locks and are very limited in accessibility, and can be accessed only under tight scrutiny. Presidential historian Barry Landau and another man, charged in the theft of priceless documents from the Maryland Historical Society, are also suspected in the theft of a document, penned by George Washington. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / August 12, 2011)

Last week, I deeply immersed myself in American "exceptionalism," the virtue that offends so many, from Russian President Vladimir Putin to our own cynics who regard patriotism as the refuge of scoundrels.

Along with my wife, I visited the Virginia homes of American presidential giants Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), James Madison (Montpelier) and James Monroe (Ash Lawn), after dropping in on Baltimore's Fort McHenry, which humbled the great British navy in the War of 1812.

I couldn't help from wondering how these Founding Fathers and the many others who pledged their lives and fortunes — with many surrendering both — for their young nation would regard today's bitter partisan standoffs, on Obamacare, the national debt, sequestration and the culture wars, among other schisms.

As our superb Montpelier guide, Ben Bates, explained, our nation's future was very much on their minds.

During the darkest days of our War of Independence, George Washington said, "The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, freeman or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own. ... The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army ..." (Emphasis added.) We're those millions.

Madison was charged with the monumental job of crafting a written constitution — itself a radical idea — that would not just unite the loose and failing amalgam created under the Articles of Confederation, but would, much more importantly, be a document that would live and work for centuries.

He incorporated some of the best thinking of the Age of Enlightenment — from such men as Thomas Hobbes, who expounded the idea of a "social contract;" John Locke, who explained how individual liberty was based on natural rights, and Montesquieu, whose separation of powers theory helped frame the structure of American governments.

Madison and his colleagues in the Constitutional Convention that began in 1787 conceived a government that was virtually unheard of in those days: One in which power would be peacefully and regularly transferred to reflect the will of the people.

Transfers of power in those days often were accompanied by upheaval and violence, including a few beheadings. The idea that people could govern themselves was, in most salons of civilized Europe, considered fatally naive.

As if to prove the doubters right, the French, trying to mimic the American Revolution, gave it a shot, but their rebellion, designed to secure liberty and equality, disintegrated into radicalism, bloodshed, tyranny and a war that engulfed all of Europe.

The first major challenge to the U.S. Constitution — the War of 1812 — came a mere 21 years after the document's final ratification. The conventional wisdom held that if the internal strains didn't rip apart a self-governing nation, a war certainly would. Especially against the world's most powerful empire — Great Britain. But America survived, demonstrating to the world that people could govern themselves.

The American Constitution arguably has experienced only one catastrophic failure — the Civil War. But we've survived world wars, economic calamities, cultural upheavals over full citizenship for women and minorities and a multitude of other tests. And with each test, with each "rebellion," we have peacefully transferred power.

The fact that a written agreement that binds an entire nation has survived more than two centuries as the foundation for successful self-government has to be one of mankind's crowning achievements in all of history. Madison essentially wrote a constitution for a nation populated by only 3.9 million people. How could he have known that it would work for a nation of 317 million, making it the third largest in the world, far surpassing in power the British Empire?

Considering how we got here, today's partisan divides, as much as we see impending disaster in them, might seem minor. And certainly resolvable, if our elected leaders shed their sizable egos and work in the same spirit of national interest that inspired our Founding Fathers.

We have been endowed with — entrusted with, actually — a remarkably workable document. My only question is: Will we bequeath this blessing to Americans living in 2213? Will we even recognize our sacred duty? Will anyone be able to write this column two centuries hence, marveling how his generation managed to get where it is?

The fate of the "unborn millions" that occupied George Washington's mind will now depend on the "courage and conduct" of us.

Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer, blogs at The Barbershop on chicagonow.com. He is the author of "Madness: The War of 1812."

dennis@dennisbyrne.net.

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