In challenging times, I take solace in the words of the Constitution’s preamble: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” We are all bound to each other in this union. We are all Americans, sharing the same political community and social compact.
The Founders were human beings who understood that the document they were creating was not perfect. Thus, they built into the Constitution a process of amendment, and it has been amended 27 times. The preamble’s phrase “more perfect” implies a goal of perfection. It is something for which we should be constantly and peacefully striving. It is something we need to strive for together.
Divisions in our constitutional system are nothing new. Even the debate over the Constitution was divisive, with Anti-Federalists strongly opposing the document’s adoption. Nevertheless, the Federalists persisted, with Alexander Hamilton writing in 1787 that the success of America would show “whether societies…are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
The Constitution was publicly debated and ratified in 1788, showing the possibility that our country could endure based on “reflection and choice.” It was tested just 13 years later, when the incumbent president, John Adams, had lost his reelection bid to Thomas Jefferson. The campaign was bitter, with substantial recriminations by both sides. But Adams left office peacefully in 1801, creating an important precedent for our constitutional republic.
Perhaps the worst stress test our Constitution has endured was the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln knew what was needed to preserve our union. In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln proclaimed that “though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory...will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Those “bonds of affection” were in doubt when Lincoln gave his famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863. Lincoln emphasized “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” This was a reaffirmation that peaceful, representative government is the goal of our constitutional union, even at a time when comparably few people possessed the right to vote.
Near the end of the Civil War in 1865, Lincoln reminded the country that our constitutional system relies on us working to reconcile our differences to the extent possible: “With malice toward none; with charity for all...let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds...to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Our Constitution has seen us through difficult times. It is our blueprint for democracy. It provides for accountability and justice according to the rule of law and due process. The First Amendment, guaranteeing us the freedom of speech, facilitates us listening to, and learning from, each other peacefully. That same amendment protects the freedom of the press, ensuring we can gather news about our government and our society, so we can better exercise our right to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment recommits us to the concept of equality, reminding us of our common humanity. And if something must be fixed, we can amend the Constitution again.
Our Constitution needs us to contribute actively to these efforts. Citizenship is not a passive, spectator sport. Lincoln knew this, as did the Founders. Indeed, there is an often-told story of Benjamin Franklin exiting Independence Hall at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was asked what kind of government the delegates had created. Franklin’s pithy response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The last twelve months, including recent days, have been tough on us for many reasons. It has been harder on some than on others. But that is even more reason to recommit to our union, working together peacefully and helping each other, doing what is necessary to keep, and improve, our constitutional republic.
Eric T. Kasper is a professor of political science and the director of the Menard Center for Constitutional Studies at UW-Eau Claire. He also serves as the municipal judge for the City of Rice Lake and is a member of the Wisconsin Bar Association.