What Do You Know About the Constitution?

Our Constitution is constantly bandied about, quoted, cited, and interpreted by every pundit from every media outlet and every political persuasion. Don't just take their word for it. What do you actually know about the Constitution? What do your children know about the Constitution?

There is certainly a lot to know--a lot to understand. Justices of the Supreme Court have pored over the document continuously for more than 200 years, considering and reconsidering the meaning of these few pages of crucial words and phrases. Not even these eminent justices agree precisely how to interpret this core American document. It makes no difference whether you believe these words are the inviolate expressions of our founding generation or living words that express the cumulative experience of the American people--if you are a citizen of the United States of America, these words touch your soul and express the core of your identity. "We the People" should know and understand these words.

Constitution Day is Monday, September 17, 2012. Every American--school child, teenager, adult, and retiree--should set aside time to learn about the Constitution. Constitution Day gained national recognition in 2004 when the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia attached an amendment to the Omnibus Spending Bill of 2004. Byrd's amendment designated September 17 as "Constitution Day" and required all federal government offices and educational institutions receiving federal funds to provide an educational program on the United States Constitution.

His notion of celebrating the Constitution was not new. On July 4, 1788, Philadelphia Federalists marched in celebration of the June 21 ratification of the Constitution. The day was recognized in Iowa schools in 1911. In 1952 Congress designated September 17 "Citizenship Day." But Senator Byrd's notion of celebrating by studying recognizes the citizen's remarkable relationship with this document. The Constitution belongs to the citizens because government belongs to the citizens. "We the People" created the document. We debated its ratification. We proposed and ratified amendments. We measure our representatives by how well they fulfill our understanding of the document.

The United States Constitution is more than just a framework for government. It is a powerful idea that resonates across the centuries of our American story--the idea that the people are sovereign, and they can establish effective government by pact or contract and constant civic engagement. Americans take that idea for granted as a commonplace ordinary notion. But in reality, most of the world's people still today live under monarchs or dictators, oligarchies, plutocracies, or theocracies. We would do well to remember that. We would do well to spend some time teaching and learning about our Constitution.

There are a host of resources available. You can find Colonial Williamsburg's reenactors online portraying George Washington and James Madison and discussing the Constitution. The Center for Civic Education, The National Archives, and iCivics.org all have great Constitutional resources for the classroom. In many communities there are public programs. Here in Williamsburg, Virginia students from the College of William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law sponsor Constitutional Conversations, a series of seminars and discussions for adults and students.

Investing government in "We the People" requires each citizen to take up the mantle of responsibility. It cannot be shirked. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be abrogated. And so on Monday, September 17, take time in your school, in your place of work, and in your home to study and learn about your Constitution. It's your responsibility, and the future of our republic depends on it.