Happy 225th Anniversary to … Who?

September 18, 2012

by John Schachter. This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Day Symposium.

Wanna know whom I feel sorry for? William Hill Brown, Sir William Herschel, and Father John Carroll. Each chalked up a noteworthy achievement, yet none receives the appropriate attention or accolades because of unfortunate timing. Students across this country – even students of history – would be hard-pressed to recognize any of these three gentlemen.

Brown published the first American novel, “Power of Sympathy," in January 1789. In August and September that same year, Herschel discovered Enceladus and Mimas, Saturn's respective moon and satellite. And Carroll, in November 1789, became the first Catholic bishop in the United States thanks to his appointment by Pope Pius VI.

But do we celebrate these fine achievements? Are we preparing to celebrate the anniversary of the first American novel, first Catholic bishop or discovery of Saturn’s orbits? No. Because 1789, in American books and minds, belongs to the U.S. Constitution. To the exclusion of other worldly events, 1789 is all Constitution, all the time. (Francophiles may note that French Revolution garners some worthy attention.) Thanks to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) we actually celebrate 1787 -- when the Constitution was written and adopted by the Constitutional Convention -- more so than 1789 -- when the Constitution took effect. So this year is big, what with it being the founding document’s bicenvicenquinquennial. Or is it the quinta-semicentury? Or maybe the sesquicentennial-semicentury-quarterquell? OK, let’s just stick with the 225th anniversary.

The U.S. Constitution is the world’s oldest still-standing written Constitution, which is quite impressive. Of course, it’s not a perfect document. It never mentions the word “democracy.” There’s a missing “n” in Pennsylvania. There’s even an incorrect apostrophe in the word “it’s” (Article 1, Section 10). Clearly the Founders needed a more perfect “Spell-check.”

As Kevin Bleyer (writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart") recounts in his satirical but surprisingly well-researched and informative book, Me the People, the Founders imbibed more than their fair share of alcohol. “They were all drunks. Or, in the parlance of the day, drunkards,” Bleyer writes. The amount of alcohol consumed back then “was staggering,” with the “average American over fifteen years old thr[owing] back almost six gallons of alcohol each year, more than twice our modern consumption.” (James Madison – the so-called father of the Constitution – when he was president even wanted to establish a national brewery and appoint a secretary of beer.) Maybe all this explains the seemingly careless mistakes. Regardless, it’s a document that has stood the test of time and earned the respect of millions, if not billions, at home and abroad.

So in the spirit (or is it spirits?) of our Founding Fathers, let’s raise our glasses and drink a toast to the U.S. Constitution on its anniversary. And let’s make it bourbon, because in 1789, Elijah Craig became the first person ever to distill bourbon whiskey from corn. Who knew?