Sunday, September 21, 2008

Constitution Day, 2008

This past Wednesday was Constitution Day. On September 17, 1787, members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia gave their final approval to the document they had toiled over for the previous summer, sending it to the states for ratification.

Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution on December 7, followed five days later by Pennsylvania. Other states followed, until New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it on June 21, 1788, meeting the requirements set in Article VII to put the Constitution into effect. Virginia caught up just four days later, and Congress (the Confederation Congress, of course) passed a resolution on September 13 that declared the new Constitution was operative. Two states -- North Carolina and Rhode Island -- ratified the Constitution after it was already the basic law of the new country.

In one of his nationally syndicated newspaper columns in 2006, George Mason University economist Walter Williams wrote:

Each year since 2004, on Sept. 17, we commemorate the 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution by 39 American statesmen. The legislation creating Constitution Day was fathered by Sen. Robert Byrd and requires federal agencies and federally funded schools, including universities, to have some kind of educational program on the Constitution.

I cannot think of a piece of legislation that makes greater mockery of the Constitution, or a more constitutionally odious person to father it — Sen. Byrd, a person who is known as, and proudly wears the label, "King of Pork." The only reason that Constitution Day hasn't become a laughingstock is because most Americans are totally ignorant of, or have contempt for, the letter and spirit of our Constitution.
There is, indeed, something dubious about the federal government mandating that schools -- not just government schools, but also private schools that accept federal funds -- teach anything at all, much less specifying lesson plans for a particular day, since the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government no authority whatsoever regarding education.

Since the 1860s, however, and accelerating through the 20th century down to the present, Congress and the Executive Branch have been usurping powers that, constitutionally speaking, are the province of state and local governments. Little things like Article II and the Tenth Amendment have not stood in their way.

Despite this depressing history, I spent Constitution Day this year at the home of James Madison, who has been called "the Father of the Constitution." The particularly special occasion was dubbed a "Restoration Celebration," in honor of the five-year long project to restore Montpelier to the way it looked in the first third of the 19th century, when James and Dolley Madison lived there.

Following the ceremony, I had an opportunity to ask Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA7), who holds the congressional seat that once belonged to Madison, whether he thought the Constitution Day legislation sponsored by Senator Byrd was "ironic." His answer comes at the tail-end of this video, after he answers two questions from WCHV-AM's morning host, Joe Thomas:

Cantor, as you will see below, was also one of the featured speakers at the festivities, along with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, among others.

The ceremony began with introductory remarks by Montpelier Foundation president Michael Quinn, who introduced PBS NewsHour anchor Jim Lehrer as master of ceremonies. Lehrer noted that an "anonymous pundit" pointed out that Madison had "invented a government that could be run by idiots," something that might have incensed some of the political bigwigs on the podium, had Lehrer not appended a suggestion that this epithet may not apply to those present:

Lehrer, in turn, introduced Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Unfortunately, I did not capture Mr. Moe's speech on video. He was followed by Congressman Cantor:

The series of speeches by public officials was broken up by a reading of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution by a descendant of James Madison's sister, Madison Iler Wing, and by a descendant of one of Madison's slaves, Raleigh Marshall:

James Madison never served as Governor of Virginia, as his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, did. The current holder of that office, Timothy M. Kaine, nonetheless addressed the audience of some 6,000 visitors from Central Virginia and places farther afield:

The keynote speaker of the day -- and the only one to be greeted with a standing ovation -- was Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., whose thoughts on the Constitution are more salient than those of any other current public official. He gave no clues about his views on issues now before the Supreme Court, however. (Roberts' colleague on the Court, Justice Samuel Alito, was also a guest at the ceremony.)

Roberts suggested, at the close of his remarks, that even the restored Montpelier is not a sufficient monument to James Madison. Referring to the famous inscription at St. Paul's Cathedral regarding Sir Christopher Wren, its architect (but, nodding to the general cultural illiteracy of even a well-educated 21st-century audience, not using the original Latin: si monumentum requiris circumspice), Roberts said "if you're looking for Madison's memorial, look around. Look around at a free country, governed by the rule of law."

Following the remarks by the Chief Justice, more than 2,600 schoolchildren from Orange County, the City of Charlottesville, and Albemarle, Culpeper, Greene, and Madison counties formed a gigantic American flag, in the form of the "star spangled banner" that flew at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. This banner was in the design of the U.S. flag during the Madison administration, with 15 stripes as well as 15 stars. (Later designs reduced the number of stripes to 13 while adding a new star with every state admitted to the Union.)

As a helicopter hovered above Montpelier to catch the "living flag" in a photograph, the national anthem (appropriately, "The Star Spangled Banner") was sung by Eric Greene of the Virginia Opera Company:

The final portion of the ceremony was the official ribbon-cutting to open the "new" Montpelier, which has been reduced in size from the 55 rooms it had while it was owned (and expanded) by the DuPont family to the 29 rooms that preservation experts believe it had while the Madison family lived there. Even at 29 rooms, the house is still large, with more then 12,000 square feet of living and working space. Governor Kaine wielded the scissors (one hopes the practice might apply to future budgets) while Chief Justice Roberts and other VIPs -- including relatives of the Madisons and the DuPonts -- held the ribbon.

After the ribbon was cut, "James and Dolley Madison" (actors, not exhumations) welcomed the many visitors to their home and shared some stories of their lives at Montpelier:

There was a lot of attention paid to the Montpelier restoration in the news media, including articles in the Washington Post, Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, Culpeper Star-Exponent, C-VILLE Weekly, Charlottesville Daily Progress, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Hook, which also offered a colorful slide show.

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