It warms my heart to see quotes from the Declaration of Independence all over Facebook, Twitter, and the Interwebs today. Yet, on September 17, Constitution Day, I see no such profusion of adoration for our Great Charter of Liberty, the Constitution. Why is this?
Everyone seems to be able to easily latch onto the broad vision of the Declaration, and the messages of freedom and separation from Great Britain. Americans shoot fireworks, host bbqs, and sing patriotic songs.
Yet on September 17, what happens? Not much. In fact, the Federal Government had to make it an official holiday in 2004 when Senator Robert Byrd added a rider to an omnibus spending bill. All Federal Agencies and schools that receive federal funds must celebrate and dedicate time to discussing the Constitution.
Although I buck conventional wisdom and argue that the Declaration does have the force of law, in some contexts, the Constitution is unquestionably our fundamental charter of liberty. Every federal employee takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. Every Judge in every Court–both state and federal–must treat the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the land.
Why does the Declaration, which has no meaningful legal significance, get so much love, yet the Constitution gets the shaft?
I think it has to do with the simplicity of the Declaration. It promotes a broad vision of equality and freedom people of all ideological stripes can latch onto. The story of the Colonists fighting for Independence from the British is amazing. And you can pull random quotes from the Declaration, and interpret them to mean whatever you want them to mean. That, I think is why the Declaration has such a popular and enduring legacy.
The Constitution, on the other hand, with talk of regulating commerce and placing limitations on excise taxes, is quite mundane. The First Amendment gets some love. People like the Fourteenth Amendment. On the Fourth, people appreciate, but probably don’t explicitly think about the 21st amendment. With the exception of the lofty preamble–which the Courts have said has no significance–the Constitution is just an enumeration of law after law. For a constitutional nerd like myself, I love reading the Constitution. But for most people, it is just boring.
I commend everyone to celebrate Constitution Day proudly. Every year on September 17, the Cato Institute has a lovely celebration dedicated to Constitution Day. I have gone for the last 3 years now, and I hope to be there again on Constitution Day. This year, I will be publishing an article on McDonald v. Chicago, along with Alan Gura and Ilya Shapiro, in the Cato Supreme Court Review which is published annually on 9/17!
Happy Independence Day! Happy Constitution Day!