At the National Archives Museum in Washington, a more than 200-year-old parchment rests, preserved by the National Archives and Records Administration and the National Archives Foundation. On permanent display, three words line the top left corner of the first page — “We the People.”
The parchment is the original United States Constitution and shares space in the museum’s rotunda with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Together, the three documents are considered the American Charters of Freedom.
“For an informed citizenry to be able to participate in a democratic system, we have to know who to hold to account for things that we observe in our political life, and the Constitution helps us understand the powers and limits of our public officials and institutions,” said Brian Harward, professor of political science and director of the Center for Political Participation. “I don’t think we’re just supposed to honor it, I think we’re supposed to understand it.”
This year marks the 231st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, and Sept. 17 — the date 39 delegates signed the document in 1787 — has been federally designated Constitution Day and Citizenship Day since 2004.
Any educational institution receiving federal funds is required to observe Constitution Day and host an educational program related to the Constitution, Harward said.
To fulfill that requirement, the CPP, in collaboration with the political science department, law & policy and journalism in the public interest programs, will screen the webcast “A Survey of Constitutional Debates in the Trump Era” at noon Monday, Sept. 17 in the Quigley Hall Auditorium.
The National Constitution Center webcast runs just over one hour and features Professor of Politics Keith Whittington from Princeton University, Brianne Gorod from the Constitutional Accountability Center and Elizabeth Slattery from the Heritage Foundation. The event is free with lunch provided.
The webcast is particularly timely, according to Harward, because of several issues scholars and citizens are now concerned about, including presidential pardon authority and presidential power related to immigration and trade.
“There are so many different constitutional questions that are arising in the last few years that the National Constitution Center has been paying attention to, and certainly lots of constitutional scholars, and journalists and other political actors, so it’s a salient issue for everybody,” Harward said.
In previous years, the college has participated in Constitution Day by hosting speakers, organizing workshops, screening films and facilitating discussions, Harward said. Hosting Constitution Day events is not motivated by the symbolic celebration of the Constitution document, Harward continued, but intends to encourage civic education.
Shanna Kirschner, associate professor and chair of the political science department, also said civic education and understanding the Constitution are essential for any democracy.
“Democracy lives and dies by having citizens who hold elected leaders to account,” Kirschner said. “If we don’t know what’s going on, if we don’t care what’s going on, then that’s it. That’s the end of the game.”
Kirschner, who primarily studies international politics, said the U.S. is no stranger to human rights violations, but that it also provides “tremendous freedoms” many people in other countries do not have. And young people have become increasingly engaged in American politics and engaged in understanding the freedoms they do have, as outlined by the Constitution, she said.
Kirschner’s observations can be represented by Allegheny’s student political groups, including the College Republicans, College Democrats and Young Americans for Liberty.
Gillian Greene, ’20, president of Young Americans for Liberty and vice president of Allegheny Student Government, said citizens cannot always depend on one interpretation of the Constitution to be correct. She said changing technology and evolving issues can help bring new meaning to interpretations.
Greene said having a constitution at all builds a foundation for the future, no matter what kind of organization that constitution guides — a campus club or an entire country.
“(A constitution) can serve as a reminder of what your original and ultimate goals are, and to kind of keep you on track with that,” Greene said. “And if you see something that violates your constitution, it’s a signal that you’re getting away from what you’re really supposed to be standing for.”
Greene is currently a student in one of Harward’s constitutional law classes, which focuses on the powers of government and discusses judicial interpretation, and he said he often reminds students what “unconstitutional” means.
“Something’s not unconstitutional because it conflicts with the Constitution,” Harward said. “Rather, something’s unconstitutional because it conflicts with a doctrine developed by judges for interpreting the Constitution — and not just judges but congress, and presidents and citizens.”
This explanation is the basis on which College Republicans President John Fazio, ’19, and College Democrats member Jesse Tomkiewicz, ’20, often debate issues — they interpret the Constitution differently.
“The Constitution is a great light for a lot of serious discussion and debates,” Tomkiewicz said. “John (Fazio) and I will debate about something like free speech, and luckily the Constitution has a specific amendment for that, but John and I will argue over what constitutes as free speech.”
Tomkiewicz continued, “Does burning a draft card count as free speech? Does burning an American flag constitute free speech? Does blocking a highway constitute free speech? Regardless, that centerpiece is having the amendment in itself of free speech, and John and I at least have that to argue about. It’s a privilege not awarded to many.”
Having conflicting interpretations does not necessarily mean those in conflict are enemies, according to Fazio, who said Tomkiewicz is a close friend.
“That’s what makes our country unique, is that we can be so opposed to each other, yet at the same time, be so close because we’re all striving toward the same goals although we have different avenues for reaching them,” Fazio said. “I think that’s an especially relevant mindset to have in 2018.”
Tomkiewicz spends much of his time on campus attending both College Democrats and College Republicans meetings and said Fazio is one of his best friends at Allegheny.
Tomkiewicz and Fazio serve as co-presidents of Allegheny Veteran Service, which seeks to improve the lives of veterans, especially those residing in Crawford County, according to the AVS purpose statement on the Student Leadership and Involvement website.
“Our establishment of AVS was due, in part, to finding an issue that people with very different political perspectives can find a very common ground on,” Fazio said. “We believe that people of any party should be in support of veterans issues and think about our veterans.”
Along with Greene, Tomkiewicz and Fazio are students in Harward’s constitutional law class this semester, and Greene, Tomkiewicz and Fazio all said the Constitution is a remarkable piece of history.
Tomkiewicz likened the document and its powers to the ballast of a ship — typically a tank of water used to weigh down the vessel. Inspired by the Sept. 6 tribute discussion for Bruce Smith, professor emeritus of political science, who passed away in July, Tomkiewicz described countries as “boats on a sea.”
“The Constitution is that ballast that keeps us down into the water and on a steady course, so the political winds of a certain time are unable to push us over one direction or another, that’s its biggest utility,” Tomkiewicz said. “Even right now, with a very right-wing House, Senate, presidency, Supreme Court, our Constitution may be bent, but we will not break.”