On September 17, 1787, delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution. One hundred and fifty years later, President Franklin Roosevelt marked the sesquicentennial of the event with a proclamation recognizing the importance of that event in American history. President Roosevelt asked all Americans to honor and reflect upon our Constitution on September 17, and we now recognize that day as Constitution Day.
Address on Constitution Day
A third of the original delegates had given up and gone home. The moral force of Washington and Franklin had kept the rest together. Those remained who cared the most; and caring most, dared most.
The world of
1787 provided a perfect opportunity for the organization of a new form of
government thousands of miles removed from influences hostile to it. How we
then governed ourselves did not greatly concern Europe. And what occurred
in Europe did not immediately affect us.
Now what we do has enormous immediate effect not only among the nations of Europe but also among those of the Americas and the Far East, and what in any part of the world they do as surely and quickly affects us.
In such an atmosphere our generation has watched democracies replace monarchies which had failed their people, and dictatorships displace democracies which had failed to function. And of late we have heard a clear challenge to the democratic idea of representative government.
We do not deny that the methods of the challengers-- whether they be called "communistic" or "dictatorial" or "military"have obtained for many who live under them material things they did not obtain under democracies which they had failed to make function. Unemployment has been lessened, even though the cause is a mad manufacturing of armaments. Order prevails, even though maintained by fear, at the expense of liberty and individual rights.
So their leaders laugh at all constitutions, predict the copying of their own methods, and prophesy the early end of democracy · throughout the world.
attitude and that prediction are denied by those of us who still believe in
democracy-- that is, by the overwhelming majority of the nations of the
world and by the overwhelming majority of the people of the world.
The first reason is that modern men and women will not tamely commit to one man or one group the permanent conduct of their government. Eventually they will insist not only on the right to choose who shall govern them, but also upon the periodic reconsideration of that choice by the free exercise of the ballot.
And the second reason is that the state of world affairs brought about by those new forms of government threatens civilization. Armaments and deficits pile up together. Trade barriers multiply and merchant ships are threatened on the high seas. Fear spreads throughout the world, fear of aggression, fear of invasion, fear of revolution, fear of death.
The people of America are rightly determined to keep that growing menace from our shores.
The known and measurable danger of becoming involved in war we face confidently. As to that, your government knows your mind, and you know your government's mind.
But it takes even more foresight, intelligence and patience to meet the subtle attack which spreading dictatorship makes upon the morale of a democracy.
In our generation, a new idea has come to dominate thought about government, the idea that the resources of the nation can be made to produce a far higher standard of living for the masses of the people if only government is intelligent and energetic in giving the right direction to economic life.
That idea--or more properly that ideal--is wholly justified by the facts. It cannot be thrust aside by those who want to go back to the conditions of ten years ago or even preserve the conditions of today. It puts all forms of government to their proof.
That ideal makes understandable the demands of labor for shorter hours and higher wages, the demands of farmers for a more stable income, the demands of the great majority of business men for relief from disruptive trade practices, the demands of all for the end of that kind of license, often mistermed "Liberty," which permits a handful of the population to take far more than its tolerable share from the rest of the people.
And as other forms of government in other lands parade their pseudo-science of economic organization, even some of our own people may wonder whether democracy can match dictatorship in giving this generation the things it wants from government.
We have those who really fear the majority rule of democracy, who want old forms of economic and social control to remain in a few hands. They say in their hearts: "If constitutional democracy continues to threaten our control why should we be against a plutocratic dictatorship if that would perpetuate our control?"
And we have those who are in too much of a hurry, who are impatient at the processes of constitutional democracies, who want Utopia overnight and are not sure that some vague form of proletarian dictatorship is not the quickest road to it.
Both types are equally dangerous. One represents cold-blooded resolve to hold power. We have engaged in a definite, and so far successful, contest against that. The other represents a reckless resolve to seize power. Equally we are against that.
And the overwhelming majority of the American people fully understand and completely approve that course as the course of the present government of the United States.
To hold to that course our constitutional democratic form of government must meet the insistence of the great mass of our people that economic and social security and the standard of American living be raised from what they are to levels which the people know our resources justify.
Only by succeeding in that can we ensure against internal doubt as to the worthwhileness of our democracy and dissipate the illusion that the necessary price of efficiency is dictatorship with its attendant spirit of aggression.
That is why I have been saying for months that there is a crisis in American affairs which demands action now, a crisis particularly dangerous because its external and internal difficulties reenforce each other.
Purposely I paint a broad picture. For only if the problem is seen in perspective can we see its solution in perspective.
I am not a pessimist. I believe that democratic government in this country can do all the things which common-sense people, seeing that picture as a whole, have the right to expect. I believe that these things can be done under the Constitution, without the surrender of a single one of the civil and religious liberties it was intended to safeguard.
And I am
determined that under the Constitution these things shall be done.
So when these men planned a new government, they drew the kind of agreement which men make when they really want to work together under it for a very long time.
For the youngest of nations they drew what is today the oldest written instrument under which men have continuously lived together as a nation.
The Constitution of the United States was a layman's document, not a lawyer's contract. That cannot be stressed too often. Madison, most responsible for it, was not a lawyer; nor was Washington or Franklin, whose sense of the give-and-take of life had kept the Convention together.
This great layman's document was a charter of general principles, completely different from the "whereases" and the "parties of the first part" and the fine print which lawyers put into leases and insurance policies and installment agreements.
When the Framers were dealing with what they rightly considered eternal verities, unchangeable by time and circumstance, they used specific language. In no uncertain terms, for instance, they forbade titles of nobility, the suspension of habeas corpus and the withdrawal of money from the Treasury except after appropriation by law. With almost equal definiteness they detailed the Bill of Rights....
On this solemn anniversary I ask that the American people rejoice in the wisdom of their Constitution.
I ask that they guarantee the effectiveness of each of its parts by living by the Constitution as a whole.
I ask that they have faith in its ultimate capacity to work out the problems of democracy, but that they justify that faith by making it work now rather than twenty years from now.
I ask that they give their fealty to the Constitution itself and not to its misinterpreters.
I ask that they exalt the glorious simplicity of its purposes, rather than a century of complicated legalism.
I ask that majorities and minorities subordinate intolerance and power alike to the common good of all.
For us the Constitution is a common bond, without bitterness, for those who see America as Lincoln saw it, "the last, best hope of earth."
So we revere
it, not because it is old but because it is ever new, not in the worship of
its past alone but in the faith of the living who keep it young, now and in
the years to come.