OEDEL: Ruffin’s constitutions

September 1, 2013 

When Macon’s Charles “Buck” Ruffin Jr. became the State Bar of Georgia’s president in June, he spoke to Georgia’s lawyers in a sobering address about a crisis of “constitutions” in our society today, and announced that he’d devote his presidency to cultivating “a year of thinking” about those constitutions. Ruffin surprised many by going well beyond lawyer shop talk.

Ruffin began by recounting how Benjamin Franklin, at the close of the 1787 constitutional convention, was asked, “Well, doctor, what have we got -- a republic or a monarchy?” and how Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

“Whether we can continue to keep our republic,” Ruffin said, “depends on the strength of our constitutions. Yes, plural, ‘constitutions.’ ”

Ruffin pointed out that “constitution” can mean something more than a document that we refer back to in sketching governmental powers, duties and people’s rights. Ruffin reached out toward more general meanings, like how a “constitution” can mean the measure of the core strength and character of both individuals and their collective society.

While most officials who get to where Ruffin has gotten talk a cautiously positive game about the system that they perch atop, Ruffin expressed genuine, acute concerns about “whether we have the individual and collective constitutions that are morally, mentally, physically and spiritually strong enough to meet today’s challenges.”

For what it’s worth, incidentally, Ruffin didn’t cut lawyers any slack in his remarks.

Ruffin started by reviewing our economic “constitution,” lamenting that we’ve lost seven million jobs nationally in the last decade. He gave as an example the nation’s challenge during the Iraq surge in 2007, when we were looking for someone to produce reinforced steel for military vehicles, yet were down to only one U.S. company with the capacity to manufacture it.

Ruffin took aim at debt and regulation, too, suggesting that we “get our fiscal house in order,” and also that we adjust our laws to cultivate work and productivity, not undermine them. Why? Because economic strength, Ruffin observed, is necessary “to make sure we can preserve, protect and defend the constitutions of this country.”

But economic issues were just the warm- up. Ruffin’s most trenchant message was about education. He described education as the “critical factor in maintaining our individual and societal constitutions.”

Ruffin urged us, almost begged us, “to teach our children about the history and founding of this country -- why the rule of law, under the Constitution, is critical to our future and the values that sustain this nation.”

Ruffin then revealed why he sees that part of the puzzle as critical.

“I was privileged to grow up in the small town of Vidalia, Georgia,” Ruffin explained, “where I learned from my family and community a number of basic values. Duty to country, second only to your duty to God. Feeding, protecting and educating your family. There is no free lunch. There is dignity in all work.

“These values were part of the air I breathed every day. Examples abounded. During the time that I was growing up, I heard a young new president -- John F. Kennedy -- issue this challenge to all Americans: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.’

“These values seem to have less influence today than they once did,” Ruffin noted. “Today, it often seems the prevailing philosophy is to get what you can from your country any time you can.

“It’s our duty to teach the next generation that something is higher, something is greater than me, us, them or immediate gratification. At another crossroads in our nation’s history in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln told Congress, ‘We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.’ ”

So Macon’s Buck Ruffin is doing his level best to help us think seriously about both constitutional history and contemporary problems. For one example, he’s leading next March a star-studded national celebration of the Constitution’s ratification 225 years ago. The rest of us might ponder how we might follow Ruffin’s thoughtful leadership in our own settings.

David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University.

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