July 1, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
July 4, 1776: The Stroke of a Pen, the Beginning of an Experiment
This weekend, Puerto Ricans and other American citizens everywhere have the opportunity to celebrate the "Fourth of July," the day in 1776 on which the Continental Congress declared the independence of thirteen English colonies in North America and separated them from British sovereignty.
But are we fully aware of what we are commemorating on this day, 229 years later?
In an impassioned indictment of abuses suffered at the hands of British governors, delegates representing each of the individual colonies placed their signatures on a seditious document, mutually pledging to each other, "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." Fifty-six men had launched our nation onto a unique experiment of governance. (CLICK HERE FOR FULL TEXT OF THE DOCUMENT)
It would take victory in a bloody war with the Mother Country -- at the time the most powerful nation on earth -- to allow some of those brave men and others to later gather in the same city and in the same hall to decide what kind of a structure it would take to give a population of some 2.5 million inhabitants (1/5 of them African slaves) a satisfactory government.
That became the task of the Constitutional Convention.
The Constitutional Convention produced the most enduring governmental system now current in the world. The delegates to that convention represented widely diverse communities, ranging from Puritan small businessmen in New England to slaveholding plantation owners in the South. Some opinion favored a strong central government with almost monarchical powers. Others sought a loose confederation of autonomous nation states. The document ultimately hammered out was the result of fierce debate and many compromises.
The Constitution that they drafted, with some amendments added along the way, remains the seminal document of the United States of America and is the basis for its rule of law. It is the wellspring from which any and all laws flow, whether in a state or territory, in a municipality or township, everywhere within its geographical expanse.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence had gotten it right. They had wished to be governed by the will of the people and not by the fiat of a king. Their subsequent Constitution would state that "all power not specifically granted to the government by the people resides with the states or with the people themselves."
One of the Constitutions signers, James McHenry, wrote in his diary that when walking out of Independence Hall on the last day of deliberations, locals queried the delegates as to what had been accomplished. He reported that a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia approached Benjamin Franklin who had also been a signer of the Declaration of Independence and asked him, "Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, "A republic, if you can keep it."
To guarantee the equality of each sovereign state, the Constitution provided for a Senate with equal representation -- two Senators regardless of the size or population of the state. To preserve the power of each individual, states are represented in the House of Representatives by a formula reflecting its population.
On that day, Mrs. Powel and all other free residents of the former colonies became American citizens. The thirteen former colonies gained political sovereignty in union with a limited federal government. A later Bill of Rights would protect each individuals access to the "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
A three-branch government was formed, each independent from the other; an executive, judicial and legislative branch, each with powers and responsibilities clearly articulated in the Constitution. The tension existing among these governmental powers ultimately would protect each citizen from legislative excess, executive domination and judicial oppression.
A listing of the political guarantees bequeathed to every American by the courage of those 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 has filled thousands of volumes and there are many more to come. Each generation measures that act and those that followed in differing ways as they pursue their unique path to happiness. That is the genius of the Declaration and the Constitution. They have been able to encompass the spectrum of American experience.
Puerto Ricans living on the island must see those guarantees differently than do their cousins living in one of the fifty states. The Constitution makes no provision for proportional representation for residents of territories. The nations founders could only envision that American citizens would dwell in states of the union or in foreign countries. It is up to todays Americans to craft the manner by which the residents of Puerto Rico can gain a political status allowing them to enjoy the same rights and accept the same responsibilities as did Mrs. Powel and Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia in 1781 and as do all Americans residing in the fifty states today.
To what extent does the U.S. Constitution protect American Citizens residing in Puerto Rico?
Please vote above!