Among the many words of wisdom inscribed within the Capitol is poet Carl Sandburg’s warning that “[w]henever a people or an institution forget its hard beginnings, it is beginning to decay.” These inscriptions are intended to be voices of conscience to guide our nation in troubled times. In this era of domestic wiretaps and indefinite detentions, where laws can be ignored if deemed “quaint” or “outdated” and where dissent is deemed “irresponsible” or “unpatriotic,” these voices cry out to a passive nation that has forgotten its hard beginnings.
It was during the nation’s hard beginnings that a departing President Washington gave his farewell address in which he warned this new nation of dangers that lay ahead which are very real today. Washington stressed that elected officials must exercise caution “to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres.” More importantly, questions about the allocation of powers between the branches of government should be addressed
in the way which the Constitution designates. — But let there be no change by usurpation; for this [however well intentioned] is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
Our nation’s first patriot properly recognized that this young nation was united not by a monarch or a shared ethnic or religious heritage, but by the principles embodied in the Constitution. That is why every president, vice president, member of Congress and the armed forces and every new citizen must pledge that they will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
The founders intended for the Constitution to be our national creed and a true patriot must always respect the legitimate roles and limitations of each branch of government; recognize that our personal liberty can only be secure when our government respects a citizen’s rights and that justice can only be rendered when due process is afforded. This is especially true during times of war since, as Justice O’Connor noted
[i]t is during our most challenging . . . moments that our Nation’s commitment to due process is most severely tested; and it is in those times that we must preserve our commitment at home to the principles for which we fight abroad.
Washington would be outraged to hear President Bush contemptuously dismiss the Constitution amongst fellow Republicans as “just a goddamned piece of paper,” while attempting to exploit politically his disregard for the limitations on executive power. He also would be dumbfounded to see Bush and his allies claim the mantle of patriotism and declare any criticism of the President to be irresponsible or unpatriotic.
But as Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith noted during the McCarthy era,”[t]hose . . . who shout the loudest about Americanism . . . are all too frequently those who . . . ignore [its] basic principles.” Patriotism is not about supporting the President absolutely but rather “it’s [about] the Constitution, stupid!”
The Capitol’s echoing voices call us to honor our hard beginnings. We are heirs to the Minutemen of Lexington who dared challenge the world’s strongest military and have inherited a republic that even its founders questioned whether it could succeed and yet has survived nearly twelve generations. This is a testament to our nation’s commitment to the values upon which we were founded, but also to the many great people who have stood tall when the time called for leadership, wisdom or service.
Our greatness as a nation flows in part from the integrity of George Washington, the vision of James Madison, the strength of Abraham Lincoln, the determination of Franklin Roosevelt, the idealism of John F. Kennedy, the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., and, most importantly, the dedication and commitment of countless nameless people who worked to ensure that this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish.”
We must always remember that this bountiful valley of liberty grew from a single seed — the Constitution. This is not a historic document or a “goddamned piece of paper,” but a covenant “to secure the [b]lessings of [l]iberty” between the Founders and all Americans to come.
At a time when this covenant faces its greatest threat since Watergate, we should heed the echoing voice of William Jennings Bryan that “[o]ur government conceived in freedom and purchased with blood can be preserved only by constant vigilance.” Vigilance requires that we recognize that it is now our turn to stand tall to protect and defend our Constitution.