As the election reaches a boiling point, and as we focus our attention on America’s future leadership, let us not forget that there is a crucial political milestone in our midst.
This year, on September 17, the United States Constitution turns 225.
With the rancor of today’s political debates, it can be easy to overlook this extraordinary occasion; yet, it is truly deserving of celebration and reflection. In fact, reflecting upon our founding document—the oldest national constitution in the world—sheds light on the type of leadership and citizenship we need in this pivotal moment.
America was born as the idea of great patriots, our original political risk-takers. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that these pioneers—not just the Founding Fathers, but the shopkeepers, butchers, and farmers—had the chutzpah to take on the British, who claimed the world’s mightiest army.
After the miraculous success of the American Revolution, what happened next is just as astonishing. In the summer swelter of Philadelphia (and I can tell you as the former mayor: Philly summers are brutal), the delegates to the Constitutional Convention quarreled, compromised, revised, and ultimately created the document that would become the bedrock of our democracy and a beacon of freedom for the entire world.
There are powerful lessons to be learned from these early years. The promise of freedom shone so brightly that Americans were willing to stand together and give their lives for it. Would Americans in 2012 undertake a similar risk for such a worthy goal? Do our leaders work together for the benefit of this great nation and its people?
Unfortunately, America seems afflicted with an epidemic of “wussiness” that has dampened our brave, steadfast spirit. Leaders afraid to lose their jobs change positions as often as their socks. They refuse to admit mistakes, alienate their bases, compromise with or give credit to their rivals. Sometimes, they even take the credit.
With all the talk of big government or small government these days, we are missing the point. We need effective government if we are to move this country forward. If reelected, my hope is that President Obama will be free from the burden of seeking office again and will be as consistently bold and courageous a risk-taker as he was in refusing to accept defeat on health care.
It’s not just our leaders but all Americans who need to step up to the plate. According to the 2011 AP-National Constitution Center public opinion poll, the federal government and the U.S. Congress earned only 10 percent and 8 percent confidence, respectively. Yet, turnout for the 2010 elections was abysmal. If we are unhappy with our leaders, we have the constitutional right to vote for new ones—a freedom that citizens of other nations are fighting and dying for. “We the People” must be the engine driving the nation. This is no time to fall asleep at the wheel.
But for Americans to engage in our democracy, they need to know how our country works. To do that, they need to know our Constitution and understand how it informs the issues. I serve as the Vice Chairman of the Board at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the headquarters of the Constitution’s 225th anniversary celebration. In the weeks surrounding Constitution Day on September 17, the Center will shine a bright spotlight on the establishment and the enduring principles of the Constitution. Millions of Americans of all ages will be inspired by its legacy of freedom—and hopefully, many of them will be inspired to vote.
Election 2012 is not just a battle between political parties. It’s a battle for the passionate, revolutionary, fightin’ spirit of America—the spirit that shaped our Constitution and made America the greatest country in the world. It’s a battle we must win.
Governor Ed Rendell is Vice Chairman of the Board and a Trustee at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He served two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania and headed the Democratic National Committee in 2000.