Two hundred and twenty-one years ago this week, the Constitutional Convention that had gathered in the touchstone city of Philadelphia to replace the Articles of Confederation with a more clearly drawn guiding document for their revolutionary experiment agreed finally on a framework to govern the new United States.
In so doing, Benjamin Franklin suggested, the framers established a republican framework sturdy enough to outlast them – if, Franklin warned, ensuing generations of Americans could keep faith with the Constitution.
The document that was ratified September 17, 1787, though amended and interpreted, remains as Franklin knew it.
But the republic has not been well kept.
The United States of 2008 is stuck in the foreign entanglements created when two wars were initiated without being declared by Congress as required in Article 1 of the Constitution.
Warrantless wiretapping and data mining projects developed and implemented by the current administration in violation of laws explicitly designed to prevent abuses make a mockery of privacy protections outlined in the 4th amendment.
Torture and extraordinary rendition, as practiced in US operated detention centers and carried out by US authorities, [is] an aggressive affront [to] the 8th amendment bar on cruel and unusual punishment of those in the country’s custody.
Presidential signing statements and the refusal of current and former White House aides to cooperate with congressional inquiries, have created a dramatic imbalance between a super-powerful executive branch and a disempowered legislative branch. This undermining of the system of checks and balances that has been at the heart of the constitutional project upsets the rule of law and creates a monarchical circumstance similar to that against which the colonials revolted.
Yet, responses to the crisis have been tepid to the point of being dysfunctional. The power to impeach has been taken off the table by congressional leaders, and the mild option of censure has been disregarded not for lack of necessity but for lack of political will.
So it is that America will on Wednesday mark a Constitution Day that cannot be a moment of celebration.
Rather, this Constitution Day requires of believers in the American enterprise a renewed commitment to the ideals – and the radical spirit – of the founders and essential document of the republic.
To that end, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold — who with his lonely vote against the Patriot act in 2001 and his consistent battles against executive excess since then has established himself as the most diligent defender of the Constitution in the current Congress — will be as busy this week as were James Madison, George Mason, Ben Franklin and their fellow framers 221 years ago.