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Constitution Day: A celebration of ideals

Adam Seagrave is associate director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership as well as associate director of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership. He teaches courses on American political thought and race and the American story.

September 17, 2018

Editor's note: Monday, Sept. 17, is Constitution Day. School of Economic Thought and Leadership Associate Director Adam Seagrave penned this op-ed about how Sen. John McCain and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson might encourage us to celebrate the day.

In his recent farewell letter to the country he served so faithfully, Sen. John McCain described the U.S. as “a nation of ideals, not blood or soil.” This statement — particularly considering its author — is striking. McCain himself could be Exhibit A of the “blood and soil” model, as a male of white European ancestry who literally shed his own blood to defend American soil from foreign enemies.

McCain’s parting statement echoes one made by another “blood and soil” Exhibit A from two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson. In his “Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson argued that “America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals. … Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.” This sounds like “America — and ancestral Americans — First.”

In a letter to Samuel Kercheval 40 years later, though, Jefferson firmly denied the relevance of ancestry to American national determination and identity, writing that “the dead have no rights. They are nothing.” Moreover, Jefferson’s larger point speaks directly to McCain’s parting advice and also to our celebration of Constitution Day each September — by insisting that our ancestors and old documents don’t provide our civic identity. “Some men,” he said, “look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence … they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.” For Jefferson, the framers of the Constitution were mere human beings and should be viewed as such by succeeding generations of Americans. They fall under the “blood” category that McCain explicitly excludes from the definition of American nationhood.

According to McCain and Jefferson, then, we shouldn’t celebrate Constitution Day as a commemoration of Sept. 17, 1787. That day came and went 231 years ago, and the 39 men who signed the Constitution are dead and gone. What, then, should we celebrate on this day?

Here again, McCain and Jefferson are clear. McCain urges us to remember and celebrate American “ideals” reflected in the Constitution. And Jefferson, though he had little reverence for the Constitution, gave his authorship of the Declaration of Independence top billing on his tombstone. Men like McCain, Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams or Alexander Hamilton live for a while and then are gone; true ideals, such as those expressed in the opening of the Declaration of Independence and passionately embraced by American heroes from Washington to McCain, have an ever-present life of their own.

In an early speech, Abraham Lincoln pointed to the Declaration as the key to making the Union “worthy of saving.” The political existence of the American Union as represented in the Constitution and embodied in the institutions it creates was not, in other words, self-evidently valuable. For Lincoln, the Constitution shouldn’t be revered simply because it’s our Constitution, nor should the Founders be revered because they are ours. The Constitution is valuable only because it follows and implements the self-evident truths of the Declaration — our God-given natural rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and to governments that equally secure those rights for all. The Founders achieved great things only by embracing and upholding these truths.

McCain’s profound point for our time is that ideas and ideals — not blood, soil, dead men, or paper constitutions — are the foundation of our nation and the core of our identity as American citizens. Let’s celebrate this Constitution Day, then, in the way Sen. McCain and Thomas Jefferson recommend: by recommitting ourselves to the kind of idealism that makes the Constitution and its framers worthy of commemorating.

Written by Adam Seagrave