September 17, Constitution Day, is not as vivid in the American imagination as is the Fourth of July. But the two dates will need one another forever in American history. On July 4, 1776, of course, Americans declared their independence, proclaiming to the world what will always be the most American of all ideas, “that all men are created equal.” Eleven years later, still trying to vindicate that idea, delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed on September 17, 1787, the Constitution that resulted from their summer-long deliberations and recommended it to the states in hopes of forming “a more perfect Union.” As it happened, this was done in Independence Hall in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence, too, had been signed–making this arguably the most politically sacred ground in America. Some scores of years down the American road, on the eve of his great trial and the greatest crisis of the Union and the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln meditated on the relation between the Union and the Constitution and the Declaration. He had in mind a beautiful passage from Proverbs (25:11)–“a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver”–as he wrote a private note to himself sometime after his election as president in November 1860, and before his inauguration in March 1861. He reflected on the blessings enjoyed by the United States–our “free government” and “great prosperity.” “All this,” he writes, “is not the result of accident.”
It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.
The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate.Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity….
The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.
In the period of the American Founding, from the Revolution to the establishment of the Constitution, Americans displayed statesmanship unsurpassed in the history of human freedom. Any freedom and prosperity we enjoy today is, as Lincoln understood in his time of constitutional crisis, a legacy of that statesmanship–an inheritance of apples of gold in pictures of silver.
Happy Constitution Day.
–Christopher Flannery, Professor of Political Science, Azusa Pacific University, and Louaine S. Taylor Professor of American History and Government, Ashland University