Veterans Day Speech 2023

By CAPT Diane Diekman, USN (ret), at Deuel School, Clear Lake, South Dakota, November 9, 2023

Good morning. It’s always great to be back in my hometown. Thanks to Superintendent Schiernbeck for inviting me here today. I would like to talk about what is possibly the most amazing document ever written, the United States Constitution. And I’d like to describe a possible way you can help keep it vibrant and relevant.

Those who wrote the Constitution did a spectacular job of designing a product that has lasted over 230 years. Grounded in British law and attuned to the experiences that came from establishing a new nation, the Constitution has been tested and amended over the years and is stronger now than it was at the beginning.

It is so important that all of us in the military, and most federal and state employees, are required to take an oath that begins, “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

Our obligation to the Constitution supersedes our loyalty to any individual or cause.

The beauty of the Constitution comes from its many layers of balance. It is based on compromise: big vs. little states, three branches of government, federal interests vs. states’ rights, government vs. private citizen. All these different interests must be balanced in every action taken.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 came about because the thirteen states realized they needed a stronger central government. The existing Articles of Confederation had insufficient power over the states. The federal government had to be able to wage war, collect taxes, control interstate commerce, and enforce its laws. Still, the states didn’t want to give up their sovereignty, and they worried about protecting the rights of their citizens.

State representation was a major issue at the beginning of the convention. Large states such as Virginia wanted a legislature based on each state’s population or wealth. Smaller ones such as New Jersey wanted equal representation for all states. Neither side would budge. They eventually compromised with a two-house legislature. All states would have equal representation in the upper house, the Senate, while the House of Representatives would be based on population and would control the purse strings.

They agreed on an elected president and three branches of government, each with power to pull back the other two. Bills passed by Congress don’t become law until the President signs them, and the Supreme Court can strike down laws it determines to be unconstitutional. Federal judges owe their appointments to the President, with those appointments approved by the Senate. No branch can operate on its own without the possibility of getting yanked back by the other two.

In the Executive Branch, all of the President’s appointments of Cabinet heads and other leaders must be confirmed by the Senate. This includes military officer promotions. The idea is to prevent the President from placing personal supporters in important positions with the intent of taking over the government.

The framers had all lived through a war brought on by British heavy-handedness, and they wanted to protect their citizens against such treatment by their own government. But as much as they negotiated and compromised, they could not agree on how to do so. They finally sent the Constitution to the states without such protections. It faced severe backlash. To prevent the bill from being voted down by the states, the framers promised to amend the Constitution once it was passed.

They kept that promise. Two years later, the first ten amendments were ratified, and we have the Bill of Rights, which protects both individual citizens and the states themselves against federal government overreach.

The ability to add amendments provides elasticity and allows the Constitution to keep up with the times. It stretches but does not break. Congress passes an amendment and sends it to the state governors to have their legislatures consider its passage. An amendment must be approved by three-fourths of the states to be added to the Constitution.

An amendment can even be rescinded, although that has only happened once. The 18th Amendment ratified in 1919 outlawed the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol throughout the nation. Well, people quickly found ways around that. Prohibition was a failure. Congress started the process again, passing an amendment and sending it to the state governors for their legislatures to ratify. The 21st amendment went into effect in 1933, repealing the 18th and allowing the manufacture and sale of liquor to resume.

Compromise is built into our government. So many in Congress and the country think compromise is defeat; they operate with an “I win/you lose” attitude. But the Constitution is designed to force opposing sides to work together for the greater good. It’s a slow and messy process.

There are always so many critical issues facing our nation, with so many different possible solutions. Unfortunately, violence sometimes erupts. Vice President Aaron Burr killed former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel. In 1859, a pro-slavery Congressman entered the Senate chamber and beat an abolitionist Senator almost to death with a cane. The worst violence, of course, came when our nation and our Constitution suffered and survived the Civil War.

Contentious issues continue, with Presidential elections being one example. The Constitution lays out the process for electing and installing our presidents. Vice President Nixon did not want to certify John F. Kennedy as the President instead of himself in 1961. Vice President Gore did not want to certify George Bush instead of himself as President in 2001. Vice President Pence did not want to certify in 2021 that Joe Biden won the election instead of the Trump/Pence team. But they all upheld their oaths to abide by the Constitution.

Those of you in high school will soon be participating in our government. At age 18 you can vote to elect governmental officials and help pass laws. Before then, you have a wonderful opportunity to learn how our government works. All high school juniors are eligible to attend Boys State or Girls State. It’s a five-day event in which students learn about the political process. They are assigned to make-believe cities and political parties. They elect city and state officials, including a governor and lieutenant governor. Their legislature meets to pass laws.

The American Legion pays for attendance nationwide. In South Dakota, Boys State begins on Memorial Day and is held in Aberdeen. Girls State is held in Vermillion the first week in June. Anyone in Post 49 can help you get enrolled.

Famous Boy Staters include former President Bill Clinton, athlete Michael Jordon, Senators Tom Daschle and John Thune, singer Bruce Springsteen, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. On the Girls State side, Stephanie Herseth-Sandin—granddaughter of a South Dakota governor–says she had no interest in politics until she attended Girls State and decided to pursue a political career. How many of you in the audience today are graduates of Boys State or Girls State? Wonderful. These are the people you students need to talk to.

I highly encourage every high school junior to apply. Your knowledge of our government and its political processes will benefit you and your fellow citizens for the rest of your life. You might even be responsible for the next amendment to our Constitution.

I’ll close by saying I am proud to be counted as one of our nation’s military veterans, and I proudly support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. Thank you.

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