The table at which Rebecca Areaux sat was conveniently located in the middle of a downtown Washington, D.C. hotel ballroom. This vantage point allowed her to easily survey the podium and nearly all of the dinner guests. This high school senior with the cheerleader good looks was recently honored along with 26 other high school students from the around country. They were feted at the Bill of Rights Institute annual gala.
The Bill of Rights Institute sponsors the nation’s largest high school essay contest. The evening’s event recognized the first, second and third place finishers in nine regions in the 5th annual Being An American essay contest. The program is intended to educate young adults about the words and ideas of the nation’s founders and to expand the national dialogue on what it means to be an American. On this evening, Rebecca and her parents were justifiably proud of her accomplishment.
The irony of the Constitution-themed awards banquet was that it was held in the very same week when Congress narrowly passed health care legislation that is already facing Constitutional challenges on several fronts.
This year’s essayists were to answer the question “What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?” Her second-place winning essay focused on courage, which according to Areaux, “defines the course of the American experience.”
She wrote that courage was essential to the nation’s founders who “fought to end British tyranny, to protect American lands, and establish[ed] American sovereignty.” Who among the founders could have imagined that two centuries later courageous citizens would again take to the streets to preserve American values and principles against a coterie of politicians and bureaucrats in the nation’s capital intent on eroding personal liberties and rights?
Victoria McCardell, Areaux’s teacher at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans, Louisiana, and who also attended the gala, assigned the essay as an extra-credit opportunity. After witnessing the value of the entire experience, McCardell offered that next year she would “make it a mandatory assignment.”
Institute president Victoria Hughes recognized the immense challenge of “engag[ing] 21st century students with 18th century documents.” Yet, it appears the Institute succeeded quite nicely as amply demonstrated by this year’s contest when more than 50,000 high school students entered.
Keynote speaker David Koch of Koch Industries noted that crafting the Constitution “would not have been possible without our nation’s free market, capitalist society.” Koch also lauded free enterprise as “the powerful engine that causes our country to be what it is.” Sadly, those sentiments are not often heard in the nation’s capital.
Perhaps what is the most remarkable about these young adults is the juxtaposition of their understanding of Constitutional principles and that of many of today’s national lawmakers.
Earlier this year insurance giant American International Group paid out $165 million in bonuses on the heels of receiving more than $170 billion in bailout funds. In response, Congress passed legislation that would tax the bonuses at ninety percent. Days after the House vote, one member of Congress confided that he voted in favor of legislation “even though it was clearly unconstitutional.” “But,” he continued, “at least it got the issue off the front pages [of the newspapers.]” This was quite an admission from a U.S. Representative who swore an oath to “support and defend the Constitution.”
Similarly, when a reporter asked where in the U.S. Constitution does it grant authority to Congress to mandate individual health insurance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied, “Are you serious? Are you serious?”
Adhering to the Constitution is seen as inconvenient by some who would rather pursue an activist political agenda even at a significant cost to the nation’s principles and values. No doubt, there are countless politicians in Washington who could learn a lesson or two from Rebecca and her fellow students.
In closing her essay, Areaux wrote, “Whether fighting for basic civil liberties for all or conquering our own inner fears, courage propels Americans to action. With courage we grow as individuals. With courage we grow as a nation.”
Rebecca Areaux plans on attending the University of Notre Dame in the Fall 2010.