Writing for NBC News, UT law professor Steve Vladeck reflects on how we celebrate today, and not Constitution Day, as the birthday of our nation:
As Lincoln would have it, Union soldiers weren’t fighting for the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, or even the supremacy of the federal government (although that theme had often been invoked in the earlier years of the war). Instead, Lincoln suggested they were fighting for liberty from tyrannical government and the equality of all men (and, belatedly, women). This, despite the fact that no provision of the original Constitution reflected such principles (and several were expressly antithetical to them). Our “founding,” in Lincoln’s view, was not when we agreed to the legal system under which we currently operate; it was when we agreed to a more fundamental commitment to everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What this choice of birthday suggests is that, whereas we are governed by the Constitution, our national ethos is more than just the sum of the rules of our legal system — which, too many times in American history, have indulged, if not directly perpetuated, inequality and oppression.
We aspire to more because that was our justification for breaking away from the British in the first place. And so, ever since 1870, July 4, and not any other date, has been recognized by Congress as the day on which we celebrate America’s birthday — defining our core national identity as one of egalitarianism, first and foremost.
This government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.