On Sept. 17, 1787, in what’s now called Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin handed a speech to a colleague. Too weak to deliver it himself, the 81-year-old Franklin asked James Wilson to read his motion that the Constitution he and his fellow delegates had been working on be signed and approved.
“I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them,” the speech began. “I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?”
All but three of the 41 delegates signed.
More than two centuries later, the document is still being perfected, and that’s cause for celebration. On Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, groups of Augustana students will gather on the Viking Plaza and in the Gerber Center for Student Life to fulfill an assignment from their professor, Dr. Harwood McClerking.
“The students in my three sections of American Government have all read the Constitution,” Dr. McClerking said. “So I’m asking them each to take a turn addressing ‘My favorite part of the Constitution.’ And then they have to tell us why it’s their favorite part.”
By doing this in very public campus settings, Dr. McClerking hopes they’ll engage other students. “We’ll see what the response is, but we may take questions from passers-by on the Constitution. I’d then ask my students to work together in crafting a response and answering as a collective whole.”
It’s all part of Constitution Day which, according to a 2004 act of Congress authored by the late Senator Robert Byrd, must be observed by every educational institution that accepts federal funds, such as Pell grants, with some form of educational program about the Constitution.
For Dr. McClerking, it’s a welcome assignment.
“The American populace in general is extremely bereft of knowledge about the Constitution as a whole," he said. "They’re much more likely to know a smattering of Amendments that will show up in the news, such as the Fourth, the Fifth and the Nineteenth.”
The Second Amendment, McClerking notes, has been more discussed in the first two decades of this century than for the preceding history of the Republic.
And that’s good. Because like his students’ responses to the questions of passers-by, continuing the work of 1787 requires all of us.
As was noted 234 years ago, a woman approached Ben Franklin after the Convention adjourned and asked, “Well, Dr. Franklin, have we got a republic or a monarchy?”
To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”