Mid-life Without the Crisis

It really isn't the destination, but the journey. May be cliche, but it's true.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Constitution Day

I had the honor this afternoon of speaking at a Constitution Day celebration at our local community college, where I am adjunct faculty.  The theme today was "American as Apple Pie."  I even got a pie for speaking!  It was fun and I wanted to share with you what I said today.  So here is the text of my speech:

“American as apple pie.”  That’s an expression that we all know recognizes something that is truly, quintessentially American.  And though the expression itself appears to have made its debut in the 1960s, we know when we hear it that it refers to things that are as old as, as loved as, or completely intertwined with America.  Apple pie is certainly as American as…well, as apple pie. 
Yet, if we look at the history of apple pie, we find that it was not invented in America.  No, pies have been around for centuries.  One of the earliest recipes comes from 1381 and calls for “good apples, good spices” and other ingredients baked in a “cofyn” of pastry.   But these early European pies often had only one crust, were thin, and were lacking any sweeteners other than whatever the apple’s own nature had to offer.  Really more of what we would call a tart.

But once the apple pie came to our shores, it took on new shapes and tastes.  Colonists often ate pies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  When apples were out of season, dried apples were used.  Over time, and with the influence of the cooking of numerous immigrants, the American apple pie evolved into the much more recognizable double-crusted, sweetened, thick pie that we know and love to this day.  Colonists often said of this new and improved version, “We cannot claim to have invented the apple pie, just to have perfected it.”

The same can be said of our U.S. Constitution.   We certainly didn’t invent the constitution, the U.S. just perfected it!
The Constitutional Convention was called for in February of 1787.  On May 25th, the work began.  By the time the process was finished, 12 states had been represented, and 55 men had done the actual work, debate and writing.  These men were farmers, bankers, lawyers, judges and merchants.  Some were native-born while others were immigrants.  Their average age was 42, though Benjamin Franklin was 81.  On September 17, 1787, 39 men signed the U.S. Constitution, which turns 225 years old today.

What began as an attempt to fix the problems of the Articles of Confederation, our young nation’s first form of government, turned into the discussions and debates that created what is now the oldest codified constitution derived from a single written source.  The 7 articles, even counting the 27 amendments later added, comprise the world’s shortest constitution.  Our Founding Fathers accomplished in 4 short months and in 1 short document what few others ever have – the creation of a lasting democratic republic.  

When that document was completed, Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesmen of the group, addressed the president and the assembled delegates before the vote and signing.  He commented on man’s tendency to consider himself always in the right and yet marveled at how the delegates put aside those views and reached compromise after compromise to satisfy the needs of the many. 
He noted that he expected American enemies to be astonished that any document could be created by the young nation, as he himself was astonished at how nearly perfect the Constitution was.  

He then addressed the president of the convention, George Washington, and said, “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best."

I think it’s safe to say that we all agree with Mr. Franklin.

We can look, then, at this perfected document as the directions for government.  It is the recipe, so to speak, for our system.  And like any recipe for apple pie, we find there is a list of ingredients, the step-by-step directions, and the expected outcome.

The ingredients for apple pie generally consist of uncooked apples, a fat source, sweeteners and spices.  Many people will use a firm, tart apple, butter, white sugar and cinnamon, and some will use lemon juice to prevent browning during prep.  But the exact variety of each ingredient varies from baker to baker.  Since there are so few ingredients, each needs to be of good quality.

The ingredients of our constitution are similarly sparse.  We have a preamble, articles and amendments.  Those are common to constitutions the world over.  What makes ours so good?  Let’s look at the quality there.

The preamble states the goals of the constitution, and they are indeed lofty.  

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Then come the articles.  The first 3 set up our 3 branches of government:  legislative, executive and judicial.  The other 4 articles outline the relationship between the state and federal governments, provide a means of amending the constitution, assert that the constitution is the supreme law of the land, and provide a legal way for the ratification of the constitution to supersede the Articles of Confederation.

The first 10 Amendments were agreed upon as a way of getting everyone on board the ratification.  They are known collectively as the Bill of Rights and they do not give us rights – they recognize those rights which are inalienable.  The other 17 were added over the course of years through a process that is designed to be sufficiently difficult to weed out frivolous ideas.

So what do we have then as our quality ingredients?

·        Lofty goals in the preamble
·        Limited government in the articles
·        Rare changes in the amendments

Sounds good to me!

The directions for making an apple pie seem simple on the surface – mix all ingredients.  But it’s the preparation that is key.  The apples have to be peeled and cut just so.  Some people like thick slices of apple, others like thin, while still others like diced pieces.  The ratio of spices and sugar to apples gives different levels of flavor, and thickening of the natural juices can be accomplished with a little flour.  It’s all in the preparation, and preparation can be complicated.  

Our constitutional recipe calls for us to elect 535 members of Congress and 1 president, who join 9 appointed members of the Supreme Court to form the top tiers of our 3 branches.  But electing those 536 people and choosing those 9 is no simple task.  There are qualifications that have to be met, delegates, conventions, primaries, caucuses, general elections, electors, nominations, confirmations and so on.  The preparation in getting someone elected or confirmed is a lengthy and often painful process!  But it’s a necessary process.  

Choosing who will sit at the top of those 3 branches is as integral to the system as the branches themselves.  The Founding Fathers knew that while rule by the masses could get messy, tyranny was no more preferable.  The one must temper the other through a balanced system that allows input and consent of the governed, in a system headed up by a chosen few.  

This system of federalism (which divided power between states and the federal government), and the system of checks and balances (in which the 3 branches and the people can check the power of one another), are seen by some as being fractures of governmental power.  It is this fractured nature, they say, that leads to the arguments and impasse we often complain about in Washington, D.C.  But it is precisely this division of powers that the Framers desired.  They understood, as we should, that the division and arguments are symptoms of a healthy system – one in which dissent is heard and steamrolling is rare.  Too much ease might mean too much power being exerted by one branch or one part of a branch.  

This complicated, messy, fractured process builds exactly the government we need.  It is precisely the complicated directions of this recipe that ensure that the end result is what is desired:  a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
When making an apple pie, I always make my dough first.  I let it chill in the refrigerator while I work on the apples.  When my filling is ready, I cut the dough in half and put ½ back in the fridge to stay cool while I roll out the bottom crust.  Then I fill the pie and finally, take out that last dough, roll it out and create the top.  It is this double crust that often sets our American apple pie apart from others.

The preamble of the Constitution has that same double-duty.  It is one ingredient and does lay out the goals that were to be met by the constitution itself, forming the foundation of the ideas to come.  But it is also the top, the expected outcome, what we see when we look at the whole.  

The preamble was actually penned last by our Founding Fathers.  I find it interesting that the last thing they wrote began so profoundly.   We the people.  Because it is we the people that we want to see as the end result of our constitutional recipe.  We the people should be reflected in the faces in Congress.  We the people are behind the power of the White House.  We the people should be seen in the decisions of the high court.

So if you take quality ingredients, follow the directions, you’ll always get the expected outcome, right?  Of course not.  It is possible to follow a recipe and still not get what you expect.  Humidity, oven temperature and a host of other factors can have an unexpected influence on the final product.  Following the directions precisely is not a guarantee of a perfect result.  They say cooking is an art and baking is a science. 
So is government.  We can follow the directions and still have an unexpected outcome because of variables we can’t control.  But in government, as in baking, you won’t ever get what you want out of it if you don’t put it the required effort.

It’s been said by many people over the years in many ways – you get the government you deserve.  And that can be a negative comment or a positive one.  I believe if we follow the recipe, we the people will have the outcome we want and deserve.  A government that is responsive to the will of we the people.  A government shaped carefully by we the people.  A government that looks out for we the people.

But we must also remember the negative side of the comment.  If we the people are not involved, we really will get what we deserve.  If we don’t know what the constitution says, how will we know if it’s being violated?  If we don’t know what our rights are, how will we know when they’re being trampled on?  If we don’t care about who sits in those offices at the tops of those 3 branches, why should they care about us?

Just like with any recipe, if you don’t follow the directions, you’re not going to get what you expect.  If you don’t get involved in the process, your end result will not be a satisfying concoction.  If you let those who don’t know what they’re doing be in charge of the recipe, you won’t like what you get.

I challenge you today to read the recipe and follow the directions so you can get the dessert you want.  Read the constitution, get involved in the process by educating yourself on the issues, register and then vote.  And even if your pie doesn’t come out exactly as you hoped, you can have pride in knowing that you had a hand in making it.  

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in quoting judicial philosopher Learned Hand said, “"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.' But our understanding today must go beyond the recognition that ‘liberty lies in (our) hearts’ to the further recognition that only citizens with knowledge about the content and meaning of our constitutional guarantees of liberty are likely to cherish those concepts."

What Justice O’Connor said is true for all of us.  How can we cherish something we don’t understand?  It is for this reason that we celebrate Constitution Day – so that we can encourage others to learn about the foundational document of our government.  That we can recognize the difficulty in the process while reveling in the ability to take part.  

I think it’s wonderfully appropriate that the 225th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution would come in an election year.  What better way to celebrate the freedoms we hold so dear and those constitutional guarantees of liberty we cherish than to be involved in the step-by-step directions of making government?  

In looking back at our constitution, how it was made, how it has stood the test of time, the process we are invited to be a part of through voting, one can say that voting truly is “as American as apple pie.”