17 September 2009

Culture Spot : On This Day – 17 September

There are two important events in American history that took place on this day.

On this day in 1787, the US Constitution was signed and adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia after a long, hot summer of intense negotiations among the various state representatives. On March 4, 1789 the government under the new Constitution began operations. September 17 is an American federal observance known as Constitution Day. The holiday was created in 2004 and mandated that all publically funded educational institutions provide educational programming on the history of the US Constitution.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (America’s first constitution) which had been drafted in 1777 and finally ratified in 1781 was the governing document since Independence but unfortunately, it was a very inefficient document. Under this document, Congress (there was only a legislative body and no president!) was powerless to enforce its decisions and was denied the power of taxation leaving the government and military short of funds. It also left Congress in a weakened position when it came to foreign policy and had no means to regulate commerce. Also, due to its inability to tax, Congress could not pay the debts it owed to countries like France and the Netherlands for their assistance in our struggle for independence from Britain.

In 1786, state representatives convened in Philadelphia to discuss changes to the Articles. However after much discussion and debate, it became clear that an entirely new constitution was need creating a federal system of government. Many states were completely against this idea fearing the loss of state sovereignty. After much debate, a document unlike any other governing document in the world had been born. A document guaranteeing a balance of power between state sovereignty and a central federal government. The wisdom of those delegates has left an enduring document and today the US Constitution is the shortest and oldest written constitution in the world, a document very much cherished by Americans.

In school, children memorize the preamble to the US Constitution which is the following:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, 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, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Here’s a funny video from the American sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, where Deputy Barney Fife tries to recite the Preamble to the Constitution from memory! 

For those of you brave enough to read a good history book on how the US Constitution came into being, I very highly recommend the book The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Stewart (ISBN 978-0743286930)

This has become one of my favorite books in my library!!

Also on this day in 1814, Francis Scott Key finished his poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” which would become the words for the United States national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The poem was written towards the end of the War of 1812 against the British. Key, along with American Colonel John Stuart Skinner, were guests aboard a British ship to discuss a prisoner exchange. However, the British were about to attack Baltimore and could not let Key and Skinner leave the ship before the attack since they knew the strength and position of the British ships. They could do nothing but helplessly witness the bombardment of Fort McHenry. In the morning, Key went out on deck to see if the fort had successfully resisted the attack. Through the smoke he saw that the American flag still waved over the fort! The Americans held!

This vision inspired Key to write a poem and he intended for the words to fit to the rhythm of John Stafford Smith’s song “To Anacreaon In Heaven,” a song from a gentlemen’s club! The melody with Key’s poem added became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and was widely popular throughout the United States. However, the song did not become the official anthem of the US until 1931 with a Congressional resolution signed by President Hoover. Before 1931, the United States never had an official anthem!

The flag that inspired Key can still be seen in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“The Defence of Fort McHenry” (The Star-Spangled Banner)

by Francis Scott Key

O! say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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