Constitution Day Lecture a Timely, Engrossing Review of American History

Hope Brusstar, Copy Editor

 On Sept. 18, Professor Emeritus Raphael Cassimere, Jr. visited UNO in observance of Constitution Day. Created in 2004, the federal observance commemorates the day when the Constitution was signed off by state delegates in 1787.

  One of the first African-American students at UNO, Cassimere began attending the university in 1959 and later became its first black professor.

  In his speech, Cassimere described the United States of the past, bringing up American history in the well-practiced way that only a seasoned history professor can.

  “A confederation is an organization that consists of a number of groups uniting in a league or an alliance,” he said. “And of course, that was the first government that the United States had. A republic, on the other hand, is a government in which the supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives. That’s what we have and that’s what most nations today have.”

  Cassimere reminded his audience of almost 40 students and faculty members about the nature of the government during its federation days and described the actions and people that helped the U.S. transition into the republic it is today.

  The conception of the Constitution and its subsequent ratification were the largest steps in this transition. Despite the document’s importance to the U.S., most Americans are ignorant of its origins and content, Cassimere said.  

  “About five years ago … a student who was in ninth grade went door-to-door and read, without identifying, the Bill of Rights to the people,” Cassimere said. “And they thought it was the Communist Bloc. … People, unfortunately, are totally ignorant about their own constitution. … I have a theory that the Constitution which was adopted in 1787 could not be adopted today.”

  Cassimere continued his speech in a storytelling manner, beginning with Shay’s rebellion. The 1786 farmers uprising prompted delegates to seek an alteration to its Articles of Confederation that would strengthen the government. They met in Philadelphia. “It took over a week to get a quorum,” Cassimere said. “[After some review, they] decided that the Articles were too faulty to keep altogether.”

  So Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Washington and several other delegates presented their Virginia Plan, which would create a new framework for the government.

  Meanwhile, Cassimere reminded the assembly, not one delegate from Rhode Island attended the Constitutional Convention. Rhode Island had vetoed almost every bill which came forth, making legislation difficult for a federation that required a consensus for every law. But in this new version of government, “an amendment could be brought by a three-fourths vote! Congress said ‘Not this time, Rhode Island!'” Cassimere said. The audience chuckled.

  Ratification required the Federalist Papers and a great deal of work otherwise, but eventually delegates attained a stronger central government. By the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791, the government would have constitutional power to stop the insurgents. “They wanted to show the people that this government could defend itself,” Cassimere said.

  There have always been concerns about the government’s ability to execute its laws using force. The U.S. government implemented the Alien and Sedition Act, and people said, ‘We didn’t know the government could do this!’” Cassimere said. “And by then, that fortuitous window of opportunity had begun to close. … since then, Americans have demonstrated a growing contempt of their government, and the country has experienced rising numbers in local militias.”

  Cassimere brought the lecture full circle by introducing historical precedence to commentary on current politics. He acknowledged increasingly polarized political views amongst Americans, and expressed that he was “against the idea that our republic will last,” unless Americans take his advice. “We need to begin by being more tolerant of others,” he said.

  History student Devan Gelle highlighted the critical role tolerance played in the rise of our nation. “I liked how the states weren’t all unified at first, but they still made the Constitution,” she said. Overall, she enjoyed the lecture. “I didn’t know this much about American history,” she admitted.

  Donald Midkiff, another history student, praised Cassimere’s storytelling prowess. “He makes you aware of the personalities in politics and how they interact …You can’t consider politics without looking at who’s making the decisions.”

  Held midday in the Liberal Arts building, the event was organized as a cooperative effort between the history and political science departments, but “the idea is owed to the Office of the Registrar, who reminded us of the holiday,” noted Dr. Robert Dupont, current chair of the history and philosophy departments.