Ronald Reagan’s words on Constitution Day ring true in today’s divided times

By Frank Donatelli

Our nation continues to suffer seemingly unprecedented political, economic and cultural divisions.

The midterm elections and the work of the Special Counsel have accentuated these divisions. We now have the upcoming hearings into the explosive allegations against US Supreme Court nominee Brent Kavanaugh. Is there anything that can contain the divisions that beset us?

This past week marked “Constitution Day” which celebrates the ratification of our country’s founding document. I had occasion to recall remarks made by President Ronald Reagan on the enduring meaning of our Constitution and how it has kept America grounded through similar difficult times in our past.

Thirty one years ago this past week, I accompanied President Reagan to Philadelphia as a member of his White House staff  where he delivered a speech celebrating the Constitution’s 200th Anniversary and reaffirming its enduring significance in American life.  His address as usual strikes an optimistic tone and reminds us why we Americans have prospered over the centuries and the central role the Constitution has played in our survival.

Reagan began that day by reminding his audience that division and discord were a part of America at its founding.   He quotes Edmund Randolph, “Are we not on the eve of war, which is only prevented by the hopes from this Convention?”  Reagan continues, “Sometimes we’re tempted to think of the birth of our country as one such golden age, a time characterized primarily by harmony and cooperation.  In fact, the Constitution and our government were born in crisis.”  Divisive times are nothing new for this democracy.

He then discusses the constitutional mechanisms that have seen us through many crises in our 200 plus year history.  He notes that the Constitution includes not only the guarantee for individual rights for all, but also a workable method of translating those “high blown sentiment(s)” into “living functioning institutions once those notions became a nation.”   This thinking is all the more remarkable since the Founders were operating in a world of monarchs and kings and the idea of self-government and individual rights were untested governing philosophies.

Finally, and most importantly, the president focuses on the constitutional restraints that insure these liberties:

“Checks and balances, limited government –the genius of our constitutional system is its recognition that no one branch of government alone could be relied on to preserve our freedoms. The great safeguard of our liberty is the totality of this constitutional system, with no one part getting the upper hand. And that’s why the judiciary must be independent.”

These constitutional guardrails have always kept us on course even as parts of the system fail us at times.

Finally, Reagan was always an advocate of America as the “Indispensable Nation” and traces that belief to the Constitution. He notes that there is an “indissoluble union between duty and advantage, and that the guiding hand of providence did not create this new nation of America for ourselves alone, but for a higher cause:  the preservation and extension of the sacred fire of human liberty. This is America’s solemn duty.”

So our times are not unprecedented.  America has overcome division before.  President Reagan’s remarks on Constitution Day 31 years ago are still relevant to helping us meet today’s challenges.  The Constitution is our bulwark, but success also requires an informed and active citizenry and a healthy respect for the views of others if we are to insure that we remain the “Indispensable Nation.”

Note:  Frank Donatelli, head of McGuireWoods Consulting in Washington, served in the Reagan White House as an assistant to the President for political and intergovernmental affairs.

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