Sep 7, 2012

What is Constitution Night?

by: Mrs. Beckstead

As part of National Constitution Day, American Heritage Academy honors this inspired and timeless document by holding this event every year on September 17th. During the weeks that precede, the scholars learn about our Constitution in America and write their own class Constitutions. The scholars of American Heritage Academy recite the preamble and excerpts from the Constitution. The pitch of the room heightens as staff, scholars, and alumni are called up one by one to sign their Constitutions. Community dignitaries and politicians are encouraged to attend this event.

The following is Mrs. Beckstead address:


It was noon, October, 19, 1781, when two lines formed on the Yorktown battle field. One line was headed by Washington and the Americans. In the other line stood the French. Between them slowly marched the defeated British. The British General Cornwallis did not come. He excused himself as being indisposed. Instead, he sent his sword of surrender by the hand of General O’Hara. O’Hara tried to surrender the sword to the French commander but he was waved back to Washington. When Washington saw that a subordinate officer had come with the sword of surrender, he told O’Hara to make his presentation of the sword to one of Washington’s subordinates, General Benjamin Lincoln. The sword ceremony was the signal for the British to march forward and surrender.

At that very moment, on the Yorktown battlefield, America was given her freedom.

The miracles of the Revolutionary War that lead up to the victory in Yorktown were numerous:

I am reminded of a cold, Christmas evening. General Washington’s troops were near collapse. Thankfully, the British, who could have finished the colonial troops off decided to wait until Spring and took up Winter quarters. The paid Hessian solders, who customarily had a big celebration on Christmas day, would be sleeping off their drunkenness.  It was a perfect time for an attack.  To stir the troops to action, Thomas Paine wrote that evening on the inside of a drum, these inspiring words,

“These are the times that try men’s souls.  The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.  Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.  What we obtain too cheap, we esteem to lightly:  Its dearness only that gives everything its value.”

On this stormy Christmas night with these words etched in their hearts, the troops crossed the Delaware river and into Trenton. The soldiers marched through the night and gained a glorious victory.

Once again there was suffering. The winter encampment at Valley Forge . A private records the time he spent there,

“The army was now not only starved but naked; the greatest part were not only shirtless and barefoot, but destitute of all other clothing, especially blankets. I procured a small piece of raw cowhide and made myself a pair of moccasins, which kept my feet while they lasted from the frozen ground, although, as I well remember, the hard edges so rubbed my ankles while on the march that it was with much difficulty and pain that I could wear them afterwards. But the only alternative I had was to endure this inconvenience or go barefoot, as hundreds of my companions had to, till they might be tracked by their blood upon the rough, frozen ground. But hunger, nakedness, and sore shins were not the only difficulties we had at that time to encounter; we had a hard duty to perform and little or no strength to perform it with.”

It was well understood by Washington’s army that he gave part of every day to private prayer and devotion. Isaac Potts, a man with whom Washington quartered, had the occasion of passing through the thick woods near headquarters to hear at a distance a voice before him. A voice which as he advanced became more fervid and interested. Approaching with slowness he beheld the Commander in Chief on his knees in the act of devotion. At the moment when Potts came up, Washington was interceding for his beloved country. With tones of gratitude that labored for adequate expression he adored that exuberant goodness which from the depth of obscurity, had exalted him to the head of a great nation, and that nation fighting at fearful odds.

Washington’s prayers were answered a few years later when against all probability, the last of the British soldiers withdrew from New York. It was then General Washington bid farewell to his officers. A lieutenant recorded in his journal the account of that meeting.

“We had been assembled but a few moments when his excellency entered the room. His emotions, too strong to be concealed, seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment, in almost breathless silence he turned to his officers, and said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand. General Knox, being nearest to him, turned to the Commander in Chief, who covered in tears, was incapable to utterance, but embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up to, kissed, and parted with his General in Chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed, and hope I may never be called upon to witness again… Not a word was uttered to break the solemn silence or to interrupt the tenderness of the scene.”

After the Revolutionary War was won, the states were bound together by the Articles of Confederation which had been adopted in 1777.  The Confederation comprising of 13 very independent states was collectively – The United States of America.  States that had different agendas and different issues confronting them.  States that owed no real allegiance to a central government.  In fact, the federal government was subordinate to the state governments.  This Continental Congress’s biggest problem was that it needed to pay for the Revolutionary War debt.

The economic conditions following the war were devastating and the country was in turmoil. The citizens were restless and were more interested in their states than in the nation as a whole. In particular, farmers lost a major market for their produce.  The foreign troops were gone and the trade routes stopped.  Due to these economic conditions, farmers rebelled against the taxes to pay for the war debt that were intolerably heavy.  And in the Fall of 1786, the farmers armed themselves and attacked the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts.   By the following spring, over 1000 of these rebels had been arrested.  This revolt was called Shay’s Rebellion.  It was significant because it underscored the tension and turmoil that was present in the country.  Shay’s Rebellion also led the way for the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 as the states realized that changes were necessary or there would likely be widespread revolt.

Many miracles happened during the Revolutionary War. However, the greatest American miracle was the Philadelphia Convention, also known as the Constitutional Convention.  It was the guarantee of the freedom fought for and won during the Revolution.  This convention was intended to address the Articles of Confederation but the delegates realized from the beginning of their discussion that this was not enough to solve the nation’s pressing problems.

They needed a new stronger national government with sovereignty between the states.

Our Founders set up our government as a Republic. You may say, I thought we were a democracy. But let me explain. The primary difference between a democracy and a republic is the fundamental source of its authority. In a democracy, the people are the highest source of authority but in a Republic, it is recognized that there is a source of authority higher than the people and that is the knowledge of God’s standards and God given rights. Thomas Jefferson understood this when he wrote these words in the Declaration of Independence, “we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.”

The first key issue of the convention was to decide how the states would be represented in the new national government. There was the Virginia plan where that states would have representation according to population and there was the New Jersey plan that all states would have equal representation. This heated debate over representation almost broke up the convention until the Great Compromise was presented in that the legislative branch of the national government would consist of two houses. In order for the large states to not have too much power, the Senate would have 2 representatives from each state. In the House of Representatives, the representation would be based upon population giving larger states more representatives.
But Before this great compromise was reached, Benjamin Franklin, the oldest member of the convention, stood and addressed the President of the Convention, George Washington and I quote,

“The small progress we have made after four or five weeks of close attendance and continual reasoning with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question producing as many noes as ayes, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern states all around Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances. In this situation of this assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, now has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?

Franklin here reminded the Convention how at the beginning of the war with England, the Continental Congress had prayers for divine protection in that very room.

“Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground unseen by him, is it probable an empire could arise without his aid? I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of heaven and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business.”

From that point on nearly every provision in the Constitution was a compromise among various viewpoints – on how long the President should serve, the details of how to regulate commerce, and the regulation of the slave trade.

The Constitutional Convention convened in the middle of May and did not adjourn until the middle of September. Those were long, hot summer months. It was recorded that when Benjamin Franklin signed the Constitution, “the old man wept.”

In James Madison’s recorded notes, it states, “Whilst the last members were signing, Dr. Franklin looking toward the president’s chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that painters had found if difficult to distinguish, in their art, a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often in the course of the sessions have looked at that behind the president, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”

God sent great men to secure and lay the foundation of our Government. Today, He has sent you to preserve it. I would urge.
If you have not read our Constitution, read it.  Take a moment now and commit in a coming day to read it, ponder it, you will come to cherish it.
If you have read the Constitution, now is the time to really study it, reason with it, relate to it, incorporate its principles into your lives. Now clothed with understanding, you will be equipped to defend it.

John Adams said, “Be it remembered that liberty must at all hazards be supported.  We have a right to it, derived from our Maker.  But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.  And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know.”

It is that desire, I wish above all else to instill in you tonight – to know of the divine nature of our Constitution that protects our God given liberty. May God bless you and God bless America.

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