Webster’s Dictionary defines Creation as “The act of producing or causing to exist; the act of creating; engendering. The fact of being created. something that is or has been created”. I would add to this that the act of creation is a three-step process. First, the idea that enters one’s imagination. Second, the actions required to bring your idea to fruition. Third, acceptance of the first two steps by the rest of humanity, thus creating a better world for all of us to live in. Visions of Utopia and Shangri-La have always been the dream of political philosophers since we signed the first social contract. I believe what the Founders created in the experimental period of roughly 1775-1791 was the creation of a “More Perfect Union” that we presented to the world. This is the all too brief story of what we created in that laboratory called America.
I love teaching the Critical Period. I taught that era in every class I taught, no matter what the course description guide said, in fact I taught it to adults through Community Ed. That time from 1775 to 1791 when the entire world was watching us, to see if this experiment in democracy could and would work out. I believe the actions of our Founders, and their enduring legacy, can inspire us today to continue creating that more perfect union.
My favorite place, perhaps in all of the USA, may very well be the National Archives in Washington DC. Where one can visit the Holy Trinity. I tell my students to pause and read as much of the documents as they can, when the line of tourists begins to back up, the guards yell out “The Constitution is for viewing not reading”. I shudder to think what the Founders would say if they heard those words told to Americans visiting this shrine today.
The Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the US Constitution was written in 1787, and the Bill of Rights was written in 1789, the documents are on display in the National Archives in Washington DC, as well as the actual size copies that hung in my room. I use to have an essay question on my exam that asked: Why is the Holy Trinity of Democracy kept in a nuclear bomb proof vault at night? Students usually wrote “So we know what kind of government we had if we were ever attacked in a nuclear war” and other answers along those lines. Now and then I would get the “correct” answer: “BECAUSE THOSE DOCUMENTS ARE OUR SPIRIT! OUR VERY SOUL! THAT THEY MUST BE PRESERVED AT ALL COSTS”.
Those documents are so much more than simply words on parchment, they are calls to action! To belong to something so much bigger than yourself.
Our creation begins in 1775 at the bridge in Concord when we fired a shot heard around the world. When a group of embattled farmers and laborers stood up and faced down the British troops in Concord Massachusetts. They “fired a shot heard around the world”. That we as Americans would always stand up to tyranny, at all costs. That shot has been heard by so many over the years. Those students sitting at that lunch counter in North Carolina, those students at Kent State in Ohio, those students that defiantly climbed and broke through the Berlin Wall, and that brave student who stood up to that tank in Tiananmen Square, they all heard the shot. Have you? If you have never heard that shot, go and visit the bridge at Concord for a little reawakening, or any of the other locations throughout history that ignited the spark that resulted in a chain reaction that would change the world.
After the experiment began, Thomas Paine would write “These are the times that try men’s souls” and “The harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph”. Words that inspired a small group of Americans a few months later to gather and declare our independence from Britain. Jefferson presented his Formal Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776. The Declaration of Independence itself was the continuation of that spark of creation at Concord. It contains a great many ideas among those 1,300 words. It includes a preamble stating what America intends to do: “When in the course of human events...” It includes 27 grievances against the king of England. It concludes with a formal declaration of war! But the most stirring words are found in the second paragraph.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...
When Hancock signed his name in large cursive letters, someone in line behind him shouted “Hey John, leave some room for everyone else”. Hancock shot back “I signed my name today so that King George III can read my name without his eye glasses”. When Franklin signed on he stated “Now we must all hang together or we will all hang apart”. The signatories were committing treason, punishable by death. Profiles in courage, indeed! For years, I pointed out Stephan Hopkins signature on the Declaration of Independence. I jokingly told my students that he must have been really drunk or hungover, his signature is a real sloppy mess. I recently found out that as he signed it he said: My hands tremble, my heart does not”. To all my ex-students reading this, I owe you all an apology.
I tell my students to take out their 2-dollar bills. Surely, every American carries one in their wallet, I pronounce, as I get mine out. They look rather puzzled at me, a look I was rather used to. I tell the story on the back side of the bill, the Trumbull painting that hangs in our nation’s capital. That among the 56 signers, two signers would become Presidents and would be among the last of the signers to die. That they both died on the same day! That day being July 4th 1826, the 50th anniversary of our founding! That 6 hours after Thomas Jefferson died, John Adams dying words were “At least Jefferson lives”. An amazing story. One of thousands and thousands of amazing stories.
These stories, make me so proud of our nation’s collective his and her stories. I sometimes over react a little when I meet ignorance and stupidity about our nation’s past. Like the time I met this woman who after she gave her little rental spiel said to Patti and I “Just sign your John Henry here”. I was ready to let her have it! To yell, or politely announce, that John Henry was a fictional character that tried to beat a steam engine! That you mean to say John Hancock, one of the Founders of this great nation, committed an act of treason when he became the first to sign the Declaration of Independence! I was ready to say all that, and so much more, when my wife forcefully squeezed my hand, saying loud and clear with no words uttered, “Please do not embarrass me (again), just let her be historically ignorant and inaccurate to her customers, let someone else educate her, and lets just get out of here with our rental”. Being on our honeymoon I decided to listen to my new bride.
God, I miss teaching this stuff!
Betsy Ross was taking her time sewing the flag and the Rebels were growing impatient. They needed a battle flag. She served them LIBER-TEA, hoping it would calm them down! They were yelling for her to hurry up and she yelled back just a MINUTE-MAN! The name stuck. When Ross was done with the flag, she asked everyone what they thought of her flag? That was our nation’s first flag POLL. But, I digress.
After we signed that document in Independence Hall we would have to prove ourselves in battle after battle after battle. After the war ended, Benjamin Rush said: “The War for Independence is over, but this is far from being the case with the American Revolution”. Truer words have never been spoken. WOW! You know the expression “What a Rush?” You do? There is no connection to Benjamin. But, I digress.
Ideas that would become part of the foundation of the Great American Experiment, now they needed to be put into action. The original copy of the Declaration of Independence states: “united States of America.” “United” is an adjective, not a noun. The Creationism continued with that mindset placed in the American people. So our first framework of government, after our declared independence was the Articles of Confederation. A loose knit fabric that soon, less than a dozen years, fell apart. The Creation was close to failing. Then came what some have called the “Miracle in Philadelphia”.
During the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, 55 men gathered in Independence Hall to draft a new, better, improved government. Compromise after bitter compromise followed. Discussion, deliberation, and disagreement all resulting in those all too familiar words that begin with “We the People” and end 4 pages later. A masterpiece. The Constitutional Convention would bring the ideas founded earlier in the Declaration into a workable framework of government, our Constitution. Now the debates began whether to accept the action plan the Framers came up with. You can read these debates in the Federalist Papers. During the ratification debates that followed, opponents of the new Constitution wondered where our rights were listed. They were right, the experiment was not complete, ideas were still being fermented. In 1791, the Bill of Rights were added to the Constitution. What a creation, the experiments from 1775-1791, that each American should be so proud of, aware of, and knowledgeable of.
On the first day of my class every student would get a copy of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights to highlight and reference for the entire course. Hopefully, for their entire life. Now, I realize, I should also have provided them with a Minnesota State Constitution as well.
I run into ex-students all the time and one of the first things many of them tell me, glowing with pride and enthusiasm, is: “I still have my Constitution”. I had an ex-student, from about 15 years ago, recently come to my office at the Capitol. He just so happens to work at the capitol. He brought his Constitution with him from when he had been in my class. I had an ex-student, send me a note. Her parent’s house had been in a fire destroying much of the house. In her note, she told me “In a pile of insulation thrown into the street was my Constitution, an angel had saved it. Who says our Constitution cannot stand the test of fire?” I still have that note.
What is it about Mandela, Malala, King, and Ghandi? What is it they knew? What gave them the bravery and courage to stand up for what they believed in? The answer, they had heard that shot at Concord and acted on it.
What if those brave American men landing in the surf at Normandy, perhaps America’s finest hour, had stayed home and surfed the world wide web? (ok, I know, but it has good alliteration)
What if Rosa Parks simply sat there slumped in defeat rather than sitting there standing tall in defiance?
What if those courageous women of the Me-Too Movement continued to remain silent rather than screaming “Never Again!”
Our actions are contagious, after all, the whole world is watching!
True wisdom is to know when to accelerate and when to brake, when to disobey and when to conform.
We the people can only hope for such wisdom.
And for crying out loud, if you have not read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in a while, they are for reading, not viewing! READ THEM!
I hope that someday when I ask someone “What are they reading for pleasure right now?”, let their response be “The Declaration of Independence” and “The US Constitution”. That would really be something. What a Creation for humanity!