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 anotherforever 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
Our special exhibit on the Constitutional Convention is a flexible interactive tool for students and teachers of American history and government. Designed by Gordon Lloyd, Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, the site offers a variety of approaches to the complex process undertaken by delegates from the thirteen states between May and September of 1787.
One feature of the site analyzes the Convention process as a four-act drama with numerous scenes. There are biographies of the delegates along with information on their ages and the education and career experience they brought to the Convention. Those digging into the details can find a day-by-day summary of the Convention debate, along with the Notes on the Convention written by James Madison. Visual learners will find an interactive map of historic Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century and artistic interpretations of the Constitutional Convention. One very useful feature offers pithy summaries of twelve major themes of the Convention debate. For example, students may be surprised to learn that delegates to the Convention met under a vow of secrecy as they debated competing proposals for a more binding and effective federal government than the existing Articles of Confederation. Lloyd presents the rationale for this decision, which seems to modern readers so at odds with our practice of democratic openness.
The Ashbrook Center has collaborated with the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a range of lesson plans on topics in American history, including a three-part unit on The Constitutional Convention of 1787. This unit helps students understand why leaders of the young nation felt the need for a constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation as well as key questions that were debated during the convention. Lesson plans include:
The Ashbrook Center has partnered with the Liberty Fund to offer seminars on the Ratification of the Constitution to teachers of American history and government. Three will be held this spring in states that were critical to assuring ratification: New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. While the entire ratification process will be covered, special attention will be given to the debate that occurred on site. These seminars are offered at no cost to the eighteen teachers selected to participate at each site (travel costs are offset with a $425 stipend). Applications for the program are due November 1st. Click here for more information and to apply.
Ashland University’s master’s program in American History and Government is designed with high school teachers in mind. Courses are offered only during the summers, and you may earn the degree in as few as three summers of intensive coursework. You may also attend individual courses for continuing education graduate credit. Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government, with nocourses limited to teaching methodology. All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents. Learn more about the program.
A Sample Course in the MAHG Program: The American Founding
The American Founding course focuses especially on the principles and practices found in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, closely studying the Constitutional Convention, the struggle over ratification of the Constitution, and the creation of the Bill of Rights, and examining key Federalist and the Anti-Federalist papers. Offered twice during each summer, it is one of the core requirements for the MAHG degree. Professor Gordon Lloyd (Pepperdine), author of our special exhibits on the Constitutional Convention and the Ratification of the United States Constitution, co-instructs this course with Christopher Burkett and Jeff Sikkenga, both of Ashland University.