Betsy marked Constitution Day 2020 by visiting George Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, and reflecting on the enduring ideals of our founding and the need to ensure all of America’s students learn our founding documents and vision. The full text of her remarks is below:
“233 years ago today, our Founders altered the course of history, authoring the greatest political document ever, one on which they staked their futures for the sake of ours.
Then, they came here—to Mount Vernon—to prepare to lead the most exceptional country the world had ever and will ever know.
America—at its core—is an idea, not a government. A republic, if we can keep it. Our Founders’ idea was to propose to the states a national government that would restrain itself by empowering its people. The rest of the world had it the other way around for centuries.
As Abraham Lincoln noted: “most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men…ours began by affirming those rights.”
The Constitution is clear: we consent to a government that exercises only those duties we delegate to it. Our Founders warned that if Congress ventured beyond very specific, delegated duties, human nature would take over and take power.
The 10th Amendment was no afterthought. If the Constitution does not explicitly grant power to the federal government, power is supposed to be left to the States. To communities. To families. Left to “We the People.”
Everything anyone needs to know about America—about who we are—is contained in those three little words.
Here, “We the People” govern. Because we know what’s best for ourselves, and for our children. We can better figure out how to help our neighbors because we know them. We love belonging to our houses of worship, to our communities, and we love our families. Edmund Burke called these our “little platoons.”
Today we celebrate our Constitution, which was written and adopted to protect and empower America’s little platoons. Its words and original meaning are ripe for rediscovery. It’s been said that civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.
Well, one of the most harmful effects of government growth is that too many of us abdicate our responsibility for one another. That government should feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. That government should take from each according to his ability, and give to each according to his needs.
But my hometown President Gerald Ford rightly warned: “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”
Perhaps too many in government today don’t heed that warning because they think the authors of our Constitution got it wrong. Worse still, those same folks think that our Constitution is subject to the whims or desires of fleeting popular opinion.
American education too often reinforces those insidious notions. It’s common knowledge that only a fraction of young people today has a reasonable understanding of American history and civics. Appallingly, more than half of high school seniors have what the researchers call a “below basic” knowledge of those subjects. In the real world, that means our rising generation doesn’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about; nor could many of them describe who those men were nor the significance of that time in our nation’s history.
The streets in some of America’s once-great cities evidence the downstream results of this ignorance. Too many young people think they prefer socialism over capitalism, “their” truth over the truth, 1619 over 1787. Too many believe that violence and vandalism are acceptable ways to express discontent and to catalyze change.
It’s in our nature to want to correct wrongs, and our Constitution provides for that, but George Washington said that change cannot come “by usurpation…for…it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
Now, our history does have its share of sins. The slave quarters on this farm speak to our first. We abhor that part of our history, but we also know that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Some, however, want to erase the history they don’t like. No one has to like history, but everyone has to learn from it—in order to… “form a more perfect Union.” That phrase from our Constitution acknowledges that establishing our country is a process, not an event. That, together, we aspire and work to “establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Some among us will have none of that. They want you to buy an America that’s divided. They believe people are somehow defined by their bank statements, by their race, by their religion, by their political party, by their gender—by labels.
Don’t believe the lie.
Because as George Washington reminded us, “The name of American belongs to” each of us. Our Constitution is not what divides us; it’s what unites us, “We the People.”
America is exceptional because of her freedoms. Not simply because they are in the Constitution’s text, but because they are an intrinsic part of who we are. The world knows that, and craves it. Thousands upon thousands of people risk everything to escape tyranny and flee to the United States for a better life—for freedom. But “if we lose freedom here,” Ronald Reagan warned, “there is no place to escape to.”
Our Constitution and our country aren’t what’s wrong with the world. We’re the “last best hope” for the world.
James Madison, the Father of our Constitution, chronicled that as the delegates debated and deliberated what would become our Constitution, Benjamin Franklin observed a sun carved into George Washington’s armchair at Independence Hall. Franklin wondered whether the sun was rising or setting. By the time 39 signatures were affixed to parchment, he happily concluded the sun was not setting. It was rising.
Sometimes we may fear the sun is setting on America, on our ideas, on our way of life—on us.
But if we embrace and exercise the God-given freedoms our Constitution articulates and protects, it will always be morning in America.
So, on this Constitution Day—and every day—let’s cherish, teach, exercise, protect, and advance our freedoms so that Lady Liberty’s torch shines bright for the next 233 years and beyond.”