A Publication of WTVP

In 2022 as in 1776, still working on becoming a nation

With Constitution Day on Sept. 17, let us find our ‘higher angels’

by John F. Gilligan |
A graphic with the US constitution and the us Flag merged. Various Americans in the background

If it’s not permitted, it’s illegal. That’s how the USSR was satirically described before its collapse in 1991. Nevertheless, it did reflect Russia’s and most of Europe’s long cultural history of autocratic rule by emperors, czars and kings.

America’s origins beginning with the Mayflower Compact were the opposite. English settlers, not the king or parliament, established their own rules of government before ever setting foot on the American continent.

That was when the revolutionary seeds of American self-rule were planted. The result is more freedom today than ever in our history.

By the end of 1776, the 13 colonies had already established or rewritten their constitutions. But it had taken them eight years of a vicious and bloody war to make that Declaration of “Free and Independent States” a reality.  

Yet before the last shot was fired, the old colonial conflicts and disagreements erupted, eroding the original 4 July 1776 unity that enabled our independence.  It’s easy today to overlook those diverse and clashing cultures, which have haunted America ever since, and jump to the conclusion that it made a nation.  

States had their own sociopolitical, economic, religious and legal identities — i.e. cultures. No law affecting a state could be passed unless all states agreed. That was formalized by the Articles of Confederation and a Confederated Congress. And that was the fly in the ointment of America’s first constitution. 

This raises a question: Was the Confederation nothing more than a marriage of convenience to secure independence from the British Empire?  After all, the agreements to unite in a war of independence guaranteed absolute autonomy for each state to govern itself in any way it desired.   

It didn’t take the Founders long to realize that this was not only an impractical structure, but a deadly one. Unless there was a common identity, America could never speak with one voice to the world or even to itself. Nor could it ever protect itself from global predatory powers. 

But how do you forge a nation with such a diversity of governments, conflicting ethnic cultures, religions, languages, dialects, customs and beliefs? That was the state of affairs when delegates from the Independent States gathered in Philadelphia and produced a written constitution on 17 September 1787 for approval by the American people. 

Let’s pause here. There was no American nation. It wasn’t born in 1776. Nor in 1619, as the New York Times purports. Americans’ first loyalties were to their respective states. In fact, the votes in the key state ratification conventions – Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia — were close calls. This hardly augured well for the future. Immediately, two factions had emerged: the  Federalists and Anti-Federalists. These were the roots of America’s two-party system. 

The Preamble or mission of our Constitution begins “We, The People of the United States” and concludes with “do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And it states a sixfold purpose: The first was “to form a more perfect union…” That didn’t mean a perfect form of government, but a more effective one that could function as a nation. 

The Constitution’s purpose was “to institute justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” How much this would unify America on one hand and secure individual freedoms on the other was vigorously and acrimoniously debated. 

The framers of the Constitution were realistic and practical. They had a good understanding of human nature: It was fallible and imperfect. It was inevitable, then, that no perfect institution would appear on this Earth. The Constitution itself had its faults. Benjamin Franklin pointed that out to James Madison. Yet he argued that it was probably the best that a diverse and fallible people with different perspectives and beliefs could produce. 

One doesn’t have to be a constitutional scholar to know that social order requires some rules of the road. But in a free society, laws alone won’t safeguard us.  Personal comportment matters. And that means self-control, civility, respect, tolerance and a modicum of goodwill toward our fellow Americans. 

Our Constitution only works because we make it work. And that requires a basic amity — goodwill — among the American people. “The higher angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln would say.   

But ill will seems to have the upper hand in today’s America. The great American experiment of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is being sorely tested, and the rule of law itself is under assault.  

So, it’s up to us, “The People of the United States,” to ultimately determine whether goodwill will prevail. Like politics, all goodwill is local. 

John Gilligan

John F. Gilligan, PhD

is a clinical psychologist and president emeritus of Fayette Companies. He lives in Groveland.