The average lifespan of a modern constitution is 17 years. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution has lasted 227 years since its signing on September 17, 1787. We have the oldest still in effect constitution in the world.
Today on National Constitution Day, we honor James Madison, Father of the Constitution and Architect of the Bills of Rights, for his leadership in the Constitution’s creation. The individual freedoms and rights we enjoy today are direct reflections of Madison’s tireless work and vision.
These ideas, the framework that became the U.S. Constitution, emerged from Montpelier, Madison’s lifelong home located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains along this corridor that is part of the Journey through Hallowed Ground. Imagine the 35-year-old Madison, a committed patriot dedicated to the ideals of the Revolution. He spends months at Montpelier reading about ancient republics and confederacies, trying to glean why they failed, and what America could do differently to succeed. While the thirteen colonies had won their independence from England, the emerging young nation could not function under the Articles of Confederation. Madison recognized this dilemma and developed the plan for addressing America’s ills.
Madison and the other founders, who were part of that hot, summertime debate in Philadelphia we now call the Constitutional Convention, are presented to us sometimes today like demigods—due with good reason to the ideological enlightenment that guided their discourse, friendships, and politics. It was this intellectual foundation that fashioned a linchpin in the axles of liberty and allowed the young United States to move from an experiment to the great country we know today.
However, it would be naïve to claim that our liberty, then and now, has been easy. After all, the Constitution was written “to form a more perfect union.” It was not perfect when created, and while it has become “more perfect” over the past two centuries, changes have often been hard won through petition and protest. We cannot ignore that a truly representative system of government was not achieved until women and African Americans entered the voting booths in more modern history.
Nevertheless, with only 27 amendments, the Constitution has proven its ability to withstand the test of time. It is the Constitution that binds us together as Americans—not where we are from, the color of our skin, or our religion.
The many voices and opinions found in today’s debates seem like fuel for anarchy. Yet time and again, out of those many opinions comes one voice—one people, under one Constitution and one rule of law—which continues to be heard as distinctly American.
The United States of America is an example to the world that a free people can indeed govern themselves. But, power demands responsibility. If we want to pass on liberty to future generations, we must ensure that each generation understands the roles and responsibilities of American citizens, including how our government works. To quote Madison “The people will have the virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom…So that we do not put confidence in our rulers, but in the people who are to choose them.”
James Madison’s Montpelier is rooted in this far-reaching vision and a deep commitment to the ideals of the Constitution. We invite you to join us for a visit to learn more about James Madison and his vision of America. Happy Constitution Day.
Imhoff served eight years as Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. She has held leadership positions with the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and the Piedmont Environmental Council. Imhoff earned her Bachelor and Master’s degrees from the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.