Power to the people!

That was the gist of a radical manifesto that will be read and discussed in some quarters this week, but generally ignored, alas.

The manifesto began to take shape in the spring of 1787, but there was no quick agreement about what it should say. By September it was clear that there were serious deficiencies in the draft agreed upon, and that amendments would have to be added.

Nevertheless, nine states voted affirmatively and our Constitution was declared to be in effect on March 4, 1789. In September of that year, Congress proposed the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and by the close of 1791 they had been duly approved.

With that approval, the bedrock of American political philosophy was formed. From that day forward it was established that the only power our government has is the power its people choose to give it. To a world just emerging from feudalism, freedom's message rang out from every mountainside, from every rock and rill in the new world.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," the First Amendment said, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The British had Magna Carta. The Americans were determined to have a Bill of Rights. The next nine amendments spelled out the right of the people to maintain a militia and to keep and bear arms; their right not to have soldiers quartered in their homes in peacetime; the right to be secure in their persons, homes, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures; the right to be free from prosecution for a capital or other infamous crime unless indicted by a grand jury; the right of a citizen not to be required to testify against himself; the right not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law; the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury; and the right of an accused to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Other points were covered, too, but the two blockbusters were saved for the end. "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," said the Ninth Amendment. "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people," concluded the final amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Today's citizen may take the political philosophy of the Constitution for granted, but it was an exciting and radical concept in those distant days. The people were saying to their government: "The power is ours, not yours. You will have as much power as we choose to give you, and no more."

There is much of interest in the Constitution. Inasmuch as this week has been designated as Constitution Week by the president (a place of information that may qualify as the best-kept secret in Washington), this might be a good day to find a copy of that remarkable document and read it.

If you're like most Americans, you haven't really read the Constitution since you were a child - perhaps too young a child to appreciate what a treasure you were examining. Why not read it again tonight, and explain it to your children?

It's short. You can read the entire document and all the amendments in a few minutes - approximately the time it takes to watch 10 dreary commercials on TV.

However, I should warn you that once you start reading, you may find yourself going back over many sections and savouring the simple yet eloquent words in which this magnificent philosophy has been set forth.

But even if an appreciative perusal does take a few minutes longer than speed-reading, I urge you not to let that deter you. Read it anyhow, and read it slowly enough to enjoy it.

There will be nothing on television tonight that will be half as interesting or stimulating.