Saturday marks the date back in 1787 that a quorum was reached at the Philadelphia State House, and George Washington dropped gavel to open deliberations at the constitutional convention.
Students of the founding era are familiar with Joseph Ellis, who has written biographies and histories of the characters and events that produced the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.
I recently finished The Quartet, which is subtitled “Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783-1789.” Ellis’ “Fantastic Four” (as one reviewer put it) are legendary names: Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay. These titans of thought regarding self-government made priceless contributions to the national charter document. But a trio of the quartet—Madison, Hamilton and Jay—was perhaps most crucial in their persuasive work at the state and local level during the debate over ratification.
Constitution Article VII required approval by nine states for adoption, and proponents knew that was far from a done deal. Indeed, a key part of the orchestration Ellis chronicles is the successful behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep the testy Virginia and New York legislatures from rejecting ratification too early. Neither wound up voting until after New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, and even then the vote was close in both states.
History underplays the education campaign among the citizens that was necessary to convince them to support and authorize a centralized power structure that seemed reminiscent of British Parliament. What happened was what we would call today an incredibly effective content marketing campaign, with The Federalist Papers in the anchoring blog role as citizens searched for answers amid rampant misinformation, fear-mongering and fake news.
In the end, there would have been no national achievement in constitutional government had there not been vibrant and contentious discussion and discourse in local town halls, pubs and newspapers.
Locality is where liberty is most fully experienced.
Ellis’ quartet and its substantial supporting cast well understood that, and the ratification campaign capitalized on it. Nearly a quarter-millennium later, in a time of instant and far-flung connectivity, we are quicker to forget.
Three separate events in two days this week helped me to remember and refocus. Each involved a foundational feature of a free society: education, culture and local governance.
First, I attended a small school sixth-grade graduation ceremony, where my nephew attends.
Even though education has a Cabinet position in the federal government, and is administered through a state agency, learning is still dispensed and obtained at the classroom level. The main actors on that all-important stage are parents, children and teachers—all of which were gathered on Monday night to celebrate the completion of elementary school for a small group of sixth-graders.
The students marched in, sat on the stage, sang a couple of songs, and then excitedly accepted their “diplomas.” Families took photos of kids with classmates and teachers. It was educational achievement at its granular, grass-roots best.
Want to improve education? Get involved at a school near you. On the board or a committee or as a volunteer.
After the graduation ceremony, I went to see a community theatrical production titled The Music Show, which showcased local vocalists and musicians in a well-conceived, superbly presented and excellently choreographed performance.
I had friends in the show, including some that surprised me. I knew one of my buddies could strum a guitar, but I had no idea he could pull off a Brian May riff solo and send The Forum Theatre crowd wild.
From classic covers of Elvis, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash to Bon Jovi, Billy Joel and the Eagles to OneRepublic and Taylor Swift, kids and adults passionately sang and danced. Audience members enthusiastically cheered and applauded. A Broadway tribute portion featured the Foundation of Arts’ cast members from Les Miserables singing “One Day More,” which pushed the bravo decibel level to the max. It was inspiring live entertainment delivering enjoyment as only it can.
Tired of R-rated, F-bomb-laced movies defining down entertainment in your community? Get involved in local arts as a performer or teacher or production member or volunteer.
The next night I sat in on the local city council meeting in support of a sales tax to fund growth in public safety and quality of life to match the city’s rising population trajectory.
The council opened with the pledge of allegiance. Some councils in other places don’t, which gives fulfilling meaning to our prized federalist freedoms.
Watching people weigh ideas and consider concepts for attainment of a future beyond themselves is energizing. Observing dissenters freely voice their reservations is uplifting, in that it reminds us that since the very start Americans celebrate debate as a distilling process for civic progress.
National political conflicts abound and it’s easy to get sucked in to those mostly academic arguments, but self-government truly begins in your own backyard.
Local issues usually need more education among the populace. Get involved in giving good local governance ideas the public hearing they need, and you’ll do more than experience a small glimmer of how the founding generation felt.
You’ll be a better citizen. And that makes a better nation.