By the time Constitution Day arrives, we have begun to re-establish our school routine and may feel like we have caught up from the whirlwind of summer activities. This day of federal observance provides an opportunity to reflect on what makes the United States of America the first nation ever to be founded on moral principles.
Challenger School conducts Constitution Day assemblies to celebrate and teach the fact that our individual successes and pursuit of happiness are enhanced because we live in a nation whose government was created to secure individual rights. Our founding documents cite moral principles that subordinate society to individual rights as opposed to subordinating individuals to the will of higher authorities, as is seen most everywhere else in the world.
Our nation’s supreme law of the land, the Constitution, acknowledges the fact that individuals are accountable and responsible for their own actions and are expected to understand, respect, and defend individual rights, as doing so is the only just way of living well in society.
Although abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, his refusal to be a victim led him to become a counselor to presidents. On July 5, 1852, he gave the speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” In it, he acknowledged the foundational importance of the Declaration of Independence:
Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; and to-day you reap the fruits of their success. The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history—the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny.
Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.
From the Potomac to the Delaware was a journey of many days. Under these, and innumerable other disadvantages, your fathers declared for liberty and independence and triumphed.
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too—great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.”
While Douglass lamented that individuals and institutions of his day distorted the Constitution to allow slavery to persist, he differed from “those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe.” He went on to further note that the principles of the Constitution do not align with the practice of slavery:
In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes.
Douglass declared that slaves could not join in celebrating the 4th of July until all people shared the rich blessings of justice, liberty, and independence espoused by the Founding Fathers. Like the Founding Fathers, he understood that while individuals differ in many characteristics, such as age, race, color, gender, ethnicity, sex, national origin, and religion, all humans share one essential and unique characteristic that defines their nature: the ability to reason.
At Challenger, we do not merely teach our students that Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We teach them why he had this dream. King understood that because humans have a rational nature, their individual choices and actions form and define their moral character. Some use identity politics to blame society for their lot in life, and some choose a path of crime, living at the expense of others. Still others, however, choose to become productive, independent individuals, like King, Frederick Douglass, and the Founding Fathers.
As Ronald Reagan stated at the 1968 Republican National Convention, “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”
This principle can be traced all the way back to the Declaration of independence, which holds
that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Since governments are instituted to secure certain rights, it follows that those rights are not granted by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or by any government, as individual rights precede all of these. Furthermore, the primary purpose of our federal and state governments is to secure individual rights by redressing injustices and not allowing individuals or groups to impose laws on others based on personal belief systems or agendas. It follows, then, that under no circumstances can a moral society use governments or laws to violate individual rights; to do so would amount to subjecting individuals to arbitrary police powers and would defeat the very purpose of governments. Therefore, in a moral society, adults should be free to associate and engage in any activities they choose, so long as those activities do not infringe on the individual rights of others.
The United States was the first nation in the world to place government and its employees in the role of agents with limited powers. Under the Constitution, actions (including governmental actions) are subordinate to individual rights. This is why we celebrate the Constitution, a document created not to protect the rights of society or grant power to the people, but rather a framework of law that protects individuals and minorities from the abuse of a higher authority.
When the Founding Fathers created the United States as a constitutional republic, they understood the necessity of empowering governments with the consent of the governed. This is why they chose to create a system of democratically elected representatives with limited powers distributed among three branches of government. This balance of power makes it difficult for any politician or group of politicians to become despots and violate the purpose of their appointments.
Evidence that our Founding Fathers knew this is clear in John Adams’ observation:
Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty.
In a similar vein, Alexander Hamilton stated:
We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
While often misunderstood, and as of late rarely respected, the Constitution’s founding principle aimed to subordinate society and its duly elected representatives’ actions to moral laws.
We hold the Constitution Day assembly to impart this essential moral principle to our students in the hope that they will learn how to properly and effectively interact in society. To put it simply, we teach students to respect and defend individual rights.
by Hugh Gourgeon, Challenger CEO
2021 National Blue Ribbon School