A couple of weeks ago, I checked out Signing Their Rights Away by Denise Kiernan at the library. I'd decided that my middle schoolers needed to spend some time learning a little more about their country's history this summer. (They were thrilled. Really. I'm sure they were.)
Needless to say, they never opened this book.
I picked it up last night and I'll be honest, it was late and I couldn't find anything else to read.
The book gives short bios on each of the men who signed the Constitution. After the Revolution, the United States spent two years under the Articles of Confederation which was basically just a document that said, "Okay world, we're a country now. Deal with it".
To give you an idea of how useless the Articles were for establishing a nation, Congress had no power to tax. So they asked for donations from states. You can imagine how successful that plan was!
Two years later, with the country on the verge of collapse, vulnerable to foreign attack and pretty much broke, American statesmen met to come up with a constitution, a document that would create a stronger federal government.
Now, lots of people hate history, but here's why I just love it. Those men that got together way back in the summer of 1787 weren't much different from the senators and congressmen fighting it out in Washington today. Some wanted a strong central government. They believed that the general population wasn't smart enough, rich enough or good enough to make decisions for themselves. Some statesmen wanted a weak central government. They were afraid of too much power being in the hands of one man or a small group of men.
These two sides, and everyone in between, argued about it all summer.
If you're up late and can't find anything to read, take a look at the Constitution. You probably won't get very far. I didn't. It's beautifully written, but in the end it's a legal document. It makes about as much sense to me as my latest credit card agreement. But after reading a few paragraphs, I did get a real sense of the compromise going on in that document. The fear of strong power in the hands of others balanced against the hope that working together would improve the lives of Americans.
The constitution has been argued over, amended, changed and changed again.
With all the political strife going on in America today, I take a huge measure of comfort in that. No matter which side of the political fence you're on, Armageddon is not at hand. The end of the country is not on the horizon. Americans and American statesmen are just doing what they've been doing for over 200 years. Fighting some of the same battles fought in 1787. The Constitution was designed to adapt, to change with the changing times. Like the Declaration of Independence says, to give us all a chance for the pursuit of happiness.
Independence Day is also my daughter's birthday, so we'll be eating cake and opening presents along with our fireworks and watermelon. Maybe it's because I'm a military brat, but when the fireworks start shooting, I also always think about my country, about its greatness and the potential for greatness. I think about the men and women in uniform, then and now, and for lack of a better word 'patriotism' fills my heart.
This year, I know I'll be thinking just a little bit about the constitution of the United States and what it means to us now. I'll try to get my middle schoolers to read that book and at least the first paragraph of the constitution that will govern their lives. They'll get a sense of what it means to be an American and what their responsibilities to this changing document are.
Really. They will.
Or maybe they will at least open the book....