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Launch of Constitution Initiative of the Office of Personnel Management, remarks by Allen Weinstein, July 19,2005

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
July 19, 2005, National Archives Building, Washington

Good Morning, Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests. I am Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the building that houses the three great charters of American freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Welcome to OPM Director Linda Springer, welcome to Deputy OPM Director Dan Blair, welcome to Senator Robert Byrd, welcome to White House Deputy Counsel William Kelly, and welcome to National Constitution Center President Rick Stengel. Welcome to all those in the audience from NARA and from throughout the Federal Government to this launching of the 2005 "Constitution Initiative." I have been asked to speak briefly on the importance of the Constitution, and that is an honor.

Our purpose this morning is to commemorate the U.S. Constitution, which, since 1787, has steered our republic through the perilous night. Surely, the Founders have returned to be with us today in spirit, but perhaps troubled yet still hopeful—much as they were when they adjourned their deliberations at mid-point in Philadelphia two centuries ago this month.

On that July day, the delegates were still uncertain whether their efforts could produce an acceptable compromise solution to break the long deadlock at the Convention or whether the meeting would collapse soon upon their return. At that point, even George Washington, who chaired the convention, "despair[ed] of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings."

We have a special obligation on this July day to pay homage to the skill and tenacity with which Washington and the other delegates subordinated their many differences to produce the document whose durability we celebrate.

On July 4, 1787, the "great experiment" in self-government so boldly announced at Philadelphia 11 years earlier was at its most fragile. Yet, there emerged—somehow—from that Independence Day impasse in 1787 a governing statute faithful to the connective tissue of American beliefs that had evolved solidly during the decade of revolutionary struggle.

On this day, as we reflect on the Constitution, do Americans still realize what an extraordinary achievement this was? Please recite with me the 52 still-crucial words of the Preamble to the Constitution, on which our country’s liberties are based?

WE, THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We bear witness today to these same constitutional guarantees, which balance the rights of citizenship and its obligations in the American republic: "If men were angels," James Madison reminded us in Federalist 51, "no government would be necessary. . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this; you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

The constraints of which Madison wrote, some upon government and others on individuals, assure our fundamental liberties. Such constraints were as hard to devise in a sweltering Philadelphia meeting hall in 1787 as they are to preserve in our own time. Bickering and confusion prolonged the work of the convention. Some zealots at the convention would have abandoned its work rather than compromise the political powers of their own states whether large or small. Our country exists today only because, in 1787, the struggle for power and position—in the end—was subordinated to the more urgent need for agreement and unity. An aging Benjamin Franklin pleaded with each of his colleagues in Philadelphia to join "with me, on this occasion [to] doubt a little of [your] own infallibility—and . . . put [your] name to this instrument."

Franklin knew that the Constitution did not herald the establishment of a perfect society but rather the pursuit of a "more perfect union." Thus, it was fitting for the Founders then and for us today to speak not only of the depth of our national pride but, when relevant, of our doubts. Of course, "My country right or wrong," but—in Carl Schurz’s sensible formulation—when she is right, support her; when she is wrong, correct her.

Let me close on a personal note. I think especially at this moment of a single individual, a person who stood before 250,000 of us at the Lincoln Memorial 42 years ago this summer and, in 15 minutes, strengthened for all time—through his words—the shared civic faith of all Americans in our founding document:

I have a dream [the late Reverend Martin Luther King preached that day] that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that we hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal. . . . This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, "My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring". . .

Even more personally, in what other country could the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants speak to you this morning as Archivist of his nation? As the late jurist and teacher Felix Frankfurter wrote, "one who belongs to [arguably] the most persecuted minority in history is not likely to be insensible to the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution."

Where, then, does it end? Where does the "great experiment" in self-government begun at Philadelphia in 1776 and carried forward at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 finally come to rest? Not in our time, certainly, when genuine democracies have never been more numerous or expanding in number more rapidly.

Nor need we in the United States be overly concerned about the future relevance of the U.S. Constitution if, in addition to keeping our powder dry, we continue the unabashed pursuit of America’s untapped promise.

What remains of concern today, as it has been since the bitter debate in Philadelphia in 1787, is the need to strike a balance between contending imperatives: At that time, it was the rights of small versus large states, of North versus South, of accounting for slavery or avoiding the issue in the document, of inserting or delaying inclusion of a Bill of Rights. In our own time, it is the civil rights of individuals in a time of war versus national security concerns, the extent of congressional authority versus judicial constraints, or "blue state" versus "red state" interpretations of our Founding document. James Madison, oh James Madison, where are you when we need you?

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, and spirits of the Founders, welcome to the National Archives and especially to our renovated Rotunda and the originals which we guard there of our Founding "Charters of Freedom" —the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.