Just as George Washington and the nation's other founding fathers changed history, Americans today can make a difference through voluntarism and responsible behavior, reported the staff director of the recent Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
Mark W. Cannon, a Church member, spoke Aug. 7 in Salt Lake City to the triennial convention of the Phi Kappa Phi, an academic honor fraternity. The speech was largely a report on the 1987 bicentennial celebration.Cannon served as administrative assistant to Warren E. Burger, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. When Burger resigned in 1985 to assume chairmanship of the National Commission on the Bicentennial, Cannon became staff director of the commission.
"Appalled by Americans' meager understanding of the Constitution," Cannon said, "the commission vowed to enrichT it.
"To multiply the commission'sT limited resources, we wanted to persuade thousands of organizations at the grass roots level to educate their members about the Constitution's unique ability to ensure freedom under law."
He enumerated several examples of how organizations responded to the urging.
"Despite the absence of federal grants, federal agencies, the states and 2,500 local governments created bicentennial organizations to design and carry out an array of programs," he said.
"Disney World made the Constitution the theme of its 15th birthday. . . .
"About 13 million copies of the Constitution were distributed. . . .
"In the month of June 1987 alone, 31,700 articles were published about the Constitution. Hundreds of television and radio programs also made constitutional history pervasive."
Cannon identified several lessons he said came from the commemoration.
"First, undaunted initiative is alive and well. Innumerable stories of people creating their own ways to honor the Constitution inspired us. . . .
"Second, though productive, volunteer programs are difficult to manage. . . .
"Third, when volunteering calls for cerebration more than celebration, volunteers internalize the subject being promoted. The commitment to supporting and teaching about the Constitution that derived from involvement with its commemoration was extraordinary. . . .
"Fourth, maintenance of freedom should be a top priority. People need reminders that freedom is a rare gem that is easily crushed by the grinding force of a mortar striking a pestle. Freedom produces a cascade of creativity and benefits, but once lost is costly - or impossible - to regain.
"Fifth, freedom brings a multitude of problems that only the free people can resolve. During a Soviet tour, we were told byT Chief Justice Lev Smirnov that they had no drug problem, except for some areas, because they had a mandatory five-year imprisonment for possession of marijuana. In a free society, it is much harder to deal with such problems."
For freedom to succeed, Cannon said, opinion leaders must urge responsible values and behavior.
Such responsibility is important in dispersing power among independent branches of government and among private organizations such as the press, he said.
Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Cannon said, "Our first duty is to `educate democracy.' " He noted that a bicentennial initiative signed by 150 national leaders urges moving beyond "the self-condemnation of the Vietnam WarT era" and calls for extolling democracy as the worthiest form of government ever conceived.
"We must nurture the unique American willingness to serve others," he asserted. "We must cultivate these qualities in an on-coming generation that is decreasingly raised in nuclear families that teach responsible virtues, that attend schools that haveT lost much of their commitment to teaching values, and who escape through television or, all too often, through drugs and alcohol.
"Yet youth seek practical ideals. They need to understand the reasoning of the founders that we can only survive through widespread public virtue - which they can exemplify."
George Washington, who became the first U.S. president 200 years ago this year, rebuked proposals that he become king, and he served without compensation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, chairman of the Constitutional Convention, and as president of the United States, Cannon noted.
"Our individual challenges are of lesser magnitude than George Washington's, but as he changed history, so can each of us make a difference," he concluded.