It was May of 1787, and history was about to be made. Fifty-five men from 10 different states gathered in the Pennsylvania State House, in the very room where the Declaration of Independence was signed, to endure the weathering task that lay before them.
The convention unanimously elected none other than George Washington to preside, and yet, over the coming months, tempers would rise, the heat of summer would prove unbearable, and some delegates would even leave or refuse to sign the finished product — the Constitution of the United States of America.
Fast forward to my English class last year. As we read the famous poem “The Seven Ages of Man,” I was reminded of our Constitution, not because of the content of William Shakespeare’s words or the structure of our nation’s supreme law. Rather, I was struck by the timeless beauty of both pieces of writing. The romanticism of the ideas, whether from Shakespeare’s work or from the brainchild of our founding fathers, is still resonant today.
The everlasting quality of human behavior and emotions that Shakespeare portrayed so very aptly is, of course, one of the reasons he is recognized. Similarly, the Framers of the Constitution were themselves skilled at predicting what this country would need in the future. They wrote the Constitution as a “living document” so it could be amended as demands and needs changed.
Just as Shakespeare made bold advances in the dramatic world, the Framers’ design included novel concepts including separation of powers, which ensures that no branch of government holds more power than the others. For example, the legislative branch retains the power to make laws, the executive to enforce and administer, and the judicial to apply and interpret them.
Furthermore, an additional system of checks and balances allows for each branch to be powerful, yet limited. The Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, only further secures the blessings of liberty by sealing protection of many rights we so cherish, protection from cruel and unusual punishment and from unreasonable search and seizure included. These are rights and privileges we still have today. Thus, it is only fitting that we continue to study our Constitution with care.
That seems to be where too many Americans are falling short. A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center demonstrated that Americans lack basic foundational knowledge about the Constitution, thereby weakening the relevance of our governing document. Only 38 percent of respondents could identify the three branches of our government, while just over half were aware the Supreme Court ultimately decides the constitutionality of laws. It’s plain to see that we do not hold enough weight to Thomas Jefferson’s statement, “It is every Americans’ right and obligation to read and interpret the Constitution for himself.”
Now while literature exams nationwide often require a basic knowledge of Shakespeare, only two states require that students pass a statewide standardized test on American government and civics to graduate. Yet we still go on living our lives each day in a nation governed by a Constitution founded on “We the People.”
“We the People” are you and me. “We the People” are ordinary, American citizens who bear the power to run a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In keeping with the simple yet elegant theme of the Constitution, these three words, “We the People,” are some of the most powerful in the entire document.
The story, influential as any Shakespearean drama, starts back in the stuffy Constitutional Convention, when the Constitution’s chief draftsman, Governeur Morris, chose the phrase to establish where the sole entity of power would be. However, the Constitution wasn’t perfect, and as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, “It manifests no disrespect for the Constitution to note that the Founding Fathers were gentlemen of their time, and therefore had a distinctly limited vision of those who counted among ‘We the People.’”
You see, at the time of ratification, the Constitution was practically intended for white, male, property-owners. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that men of all race, color, or previous condition of servitude were given an equal status and protection under the law through the 14th Amendment and the right to vote through the 15th Amendment. Under the 19th Amendment women earned suffrage, while the youth of America was given a voice with the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. The definition of “We the People” that stands today covers people of all races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
If we continue to reap the benefits of being a part of that phrase, we must take on the responsibilities that come with it. In 1962 Clarence Gideon proved that even a little knowledge about the Constitution can go a long way in the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright. Gideon was arrested and put on trial in Florida, but he could not afford to hire a lawyer. His request for counsel was denied, as Florida law only permitted such assistance for indigent defendants on trial for capital cases. Gideon defended himself, was found guilty, and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
In the prison’s library Gideon came across information about the Sixth Amendment and realized he had the right to assistance of counsel. He then hand-wrote a hand written appeal to the court, which lead to the ruling being overturned.
Just as it paid off for Gideon, knowing our Constitutional rights is highly rewarding for ordinary citizens. Just look at Miranda v. Arizona ruled that police must inform arrested citizens of their rights before questioning, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools unequal, and Mapp v. Ohio, which ruled that under certain circumstances evidence must be excluded from trials. These rulings, as well as others, outline the boundaries of our government, stimulating a need to understand them.
Even as we moan and groan about studying Shakespeare, we recognize its timeless beauty. So, when we use rights every day, why should we not at least as carefully study our Constitution? We, as Americans, are responsible for becoming more able and effective citizens and leaders by learning about the Constitution. In doing so, we honor those who fought for this nation, those who strive each day to make it a better place, and those in uniform who continue to fight for our rights, freedoms, and all that we hold dearly. As Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them.”
Even in the depths of today’s struggles, when there is so much despair and discussion over everything from Congress’s approval ratings, to, getting the economy back on track, the same Constitution that means so much to me, to all of you, and to Americans everywhere protects us. Yes, we must pay our taxes, make educated voting choices, run for office, and be model citizens.
But we must also be more. We must honor our country by serving it in every way possible, starting with learning about the Constitution, why it exists, and how we can protect the bearer of hope and truth that it is. For if we do these things, the piece of paper that keeps our country moving forward will be paper no more. It will surpass the hopes of our Founding Fathers and be alive in the hearts of Americans, now and forever.
Perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous play was Romeo and Juliet, the tragic love story. America’s story is also one of love — the love that her inhabitants share for their country. But there is one glaring difference between these two works. America’s constitutional love story is not a tragedy; it’s a story of promise that will continue. As statesman Henry Clay once said, “The Constitution was not made merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity — unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”
Masoom’s essay, read at the Memorial Day program Monday, was the runner-up entry in the district level of the Wisconsin American Legion High School Oratorical Contest.