Today I attended what was billed at a lecture and what ended up being a discussion lead by Judge Thomas Hardiman on the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution in honor of Constitution Day. His brief remarks were powerful for two reasons: his obvious respect for the Constitution and Bill of Rights and position that he was still a student of both documents. The first is powerful for me because I see so few people who are comfortable saying the words “I feel honored to” do anything and so it was strange and fitting when he told us that he felt honored to work with the Constitution and Bill of Rights every day. The second reason was powerful to me because of the most positive things that any document can inspire in a person is the desire to learn more, and if a Federal Circuit Judge can feel like a perpetual student (he said it’s like th first few weeks of Freshman Year all the time) than maybe it’s ok for me to still be in awe of these documents. He spoke of them as the Gospel of the American people, something which we could go forth and tell people about: talk to people about their civil rights. It was a fascinating beginning to a good discussion.
He ended his speech by reading this speech written by Benjamin Franklin at a time when it was unclear if the US Constitution would ever be endorsed by the Framers. He was 81 and so feeble that he had to have his speech read by another because his legs would not support him long enough to read it. Because he had to write it out hat we have it verbatim today:
“Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions even on important subjects which I once thought right but found to be otherwise. It is, therefore, that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this constitution with all of its faults, if they are such, because I think a general government necessary for us and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well-administered and believe further that this is likely to be well-administered, for a course of years. 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 errs of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore, astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near perfection as it does and I think it will astonish our enemies. Thus I consent, sir, to this constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born and here they shall die.”
PS: I got this from a website which had inserted some very funny commentary. Go there to read it as I have deleted it.
On the final day, when the last of the Delegates was signing the Constitution (as all but 3 of them did following the above appeal), Franklin looked to the President’s chair which had a great sun emblazoned on it and said:
“I have often … in the course of the session … looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
Our later discussion ranged from the purpose section of the Lemon Test (I asked a question about a case which might yet come before his circuit which he rightly dodged. I hadn’t thought about the propriety of asking it and he wasn’t offended) to whether the age limits on Representatives, Senators and Presidents were modernly applicable. Thanks to everyone who was there, it reminded me again how much fun law can be.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”