I believe in We the People. Those first three words of the U.S. Constitution set forth the bedrock principle of American government: all power comes from the people. Not the king, not the legislature, not the courts, not the states–but We the People.
This was a radical concept in 1787 when George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and James Madison set their names to it. And it remains a radical concept today.
Ours is the oldest written constitution of a nation still in use–so it’s fitting we should set aside a day to reflect on the Constitution’s success. This year Constitution Day is observed on Monday, September 18.
Why has a government dedicated to “We the People” endured for so long? I have spent my entire professional life, almost 25 years, trying to answer this question. Here’s what my research has taught me. The secret of the Constitution’s success is that those who were not included in “We the People” in 1787 never really believed it–no matter what the framers wrote or the Supreme Court ruled. They just didn’t believe it.
White men without property sought the vote, even though John Adams and other founders scoffed.
The Cherokees claimed the Constitution was their “bulwark and only citadel of refuge,” even when President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce a Supreme Court ruling that protected Cherokee lands from the Georgia legislature.
Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave, argued after the infamous Dred Scott decision that the Constitution was established by “We the People–not we the white people.”
Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested in 1872 for trying to vote, echoed a similar cry. She said: “It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor yet we, the male citizens, but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”
And in my own life, it was a little girl named Sandra Gross in my seventh-grade classroom who embodied “We the People.” She bore the brunt of my racist feelings when our Mississippi school was at last integrated in 1970. Her courage, and that of thousands more like her, finally put “separate but equal” to rest.
I believe in We the People because I have felt the transformative power of citizens united to enlarge the meaning of the Constitution beyond its interpretation in 1787. And in so doing, they have made it a Constitution for the ages.
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