Shimer's Twist on Constitution Day
It shouldn't surprise you to hear about Shimer students discussing the US Constitution. In fact, it would be worrisome if such events weren't taking place at a liberal arts college premised on the slogan "Great Books, Great Conversation." However, on the evening of September 17, Dean of Students Stuart Patterson met with a group of students for a particularly unusual discussion, because both the "what" and "when" were determined by Congress. In 2004, Congress established Constitution Day, and the following year, the US Department of Education implemented the law, establishing that "those educational institutions receiving Federal funding are required to hold an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year."
So for once, it would seem, Shimer fell into perfect step with every other institution in the country, spending Constitution Day contemplating the framework upon which our national identity as a democratic and free society is staked. However, in the Shimer spirit, Shimer put its own twist on an "educational program," which consisted of a discussion of the constitutionality of Constitution Day, itself. The idea behind this year's event was to be critical of the federal mandate not through just the text of the document (i.e.-- by reading the letter of the law), but in light of the principle (the "golden apple") of "liberty for all," and the extent to which the Constitution and/or the law establishing Constitution Day succeeds in adorning and preserving that ideal.
The discussion opened with a quote from Abraham Lincoln concerning "the principle of Liberty to all" and the relationship of the constitution and the state in preserving and promoting that principle:
"There is something back of [the Constitution and the Union], 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, enterprise, 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 consequently prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.
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 it, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple, not the apple for the picture.
So let us act that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken."
The discussion quickly moved to questions concerning limits imposed on Congress in Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution. Congress's powers in Section 8 were contrasted with the limits in Section 9, and whether or not either were relevant to questioning the power of the Congress to pass a law like Constitution Day. Eventually this led the group back to the Lincoln quotation in its emphasis on "enterprise." It was noted that all of the sections read involved the same concern for the nation's business. The night concluded with questions of representation, the history and politics surrounding the case of Washington DC, as well as what political motivations might be responsible for the birth of Constitution Day.