On September 17th, the Constitution of the United States turns 223. Our constitution is the oldest continuously used constitution in the world. It is also the shortest, taking just four large pages to lay out the structure of the federal government and the principles of individual freedom that government should respect.
While we tend to take the strength and simplicity of our Constitution for granted, its survival has never been guaranteed. As George Washington wrote at the time, its completion after months of negotiation was "little short of a miracle." Even as they were signing it, many of the delegates had doubts that it would hold together a collection of states with diverse needs and fierce independent streaks.
The America the founders knew looked very different from the country we live in today. The population of the United States was just around 4 million, or two-thirds the size of Tennessee today. Philadelphia, the country's largest city, had just about as many residents as modern day Gallatin. The majority of Americans were farmers, compared with 1% of Americans today. The second most common language was German-so common in fact that the Constitution was quickly translated and circulated in both languages.
Reflecting on the vast differences between the United States then and now, it is remarkable that the same few pages of text still resonates today as it did then. But the Constitution's strength is a tribute to the strength of certain values in our culture-freedom, opportunity, respect for individual rights, and equality before the law. It is also a tribute to the genius of the founders who designed it so it could evolve as the country did.
The Constitution has depended on many people to uphold and protect it. Millions of Americans in the armed services have made great sacrifices in its defense throughout the past two centuries. Today, thousands of Tennessee's National Guardsmen are fighting alongside other members of our armed forces to defend the same freedoms and rights established in our Constitution 222 years ago.
The Constitution also depends on the respect and understanding of each new generation of citizens. Constitutional principles don't just lay out what our government can and can't do. They have also become the defining values of our country's identity, the respect for liberty that sets us apart from the rest of the world.
Our democracy depends on each generation being able to appreciate the principles set down in the Constitution, and bring their own understanding of it to the table when they vote and participate in their communities.
This week, in honor of Constitution Day, we should take some time to read over this powerful document with our children, reacquaint ourselves with its history and reflect on the power of these few pages to inspire Americans through the generations.
Congressman Bart Gordon represents Tennessee's 6th district in the U.S. House of Representatives.