“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
This is the Preamble of what, for Americans, is the Supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution of the United States. It was written on Sept. 17, 1787 and ratified June 21, 1788. It has become one of the landmark documents in human history. Many national constitutions around the world are based on it.
Some would say this document is flawed. However, that’s part of the beauty of our Constitution. The Founders recognized it wasn’t perfect, and they made provisions that it could be changed in order to form that more perfect Union.
The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation when it was realized these were inadequate at turning these former British colonies into something resembling a nation.
Let’s be real here. The Constitution was not handed down from on high by wise men to the adulation of the masses. They had to put a lot of hard work into this, and they negotiated, made compromises, reached many a consensus and played hardball to get it done. In other words, the Founders were (gasp!) politicians.
We should keep in mind that negotiation and consensus building are actually built into the Constitution. The Separation of Powers, and the balancing of those powers, practically guarantees that different groups will have to work with each other to get things done. The Founders understood from their own work that this was the best way to protect freedom and ensure no one got too much power.
The Founders realized they were flawed people, and the document they were creating was not perfect. That’s why they made provisions that it could be changed or “amended.” The First Ten Amendments enshrined and protected America’s freedoms, and have become known as the Bill of Rights. There have been 17 Amendments since then.
The process of amending the Constitution isn’t easy, but that hasn’t kept dumb ideas from getting in. Perhaps the dumbest was the 18th Amendment, or “Prohibition.” If we learned anything from that, it’s that we should be careful what we put in the Constitution because, once it’s in, it takes another Amendment to get it out (in this case, the 21st Amendment).
One of the things I hear is the Constitution is written in plain language and is easy to understand. Maybe so, but we’ve been arguing about what it means for more than 200 years. Fortunately, by default and design, there is a process for interpreting what the Constitution means.
Ever since “Marbury v. Madison” (1803), the courts have been deciding what the Constitution means if issues are raised as to what it means. Have they made mistakes? Yes. One of the biggest was the Supreme Court’s decision in “Dred Scott v. Sandford” (1857). They ruled Black Americans could not be citizens, even if they were free. They also ruled Congress had no authority to outlaw slavery in the new territories. This ruling was one of the many issues that led to the Civil War. It wasn’t until the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that it was rendered null and void.
This is one of several examples of how the Founders had the right idea when they created a process for changing the Constitution.
Something else I often hear these days is the Constitution was written by white slave-owning men who were only interested in protecting slavery and white supremacy. They point to the “Three-fifths” clause (Article 1, Section 2) which states slaves only count as three-fifths of a person as proof of this claim.
This clause was a compromise. Slave-holding states wanted their entire populations, slave and free, counted for representation purposes. Anti-slave states wanted the slave population excluded. To get the Constitution approved and ratified, the three-fifths compromise was added.
Curiously, the Constitution doesn’t mention “slaves” or “slavery” until the 13th Amendment. The three-fifths clause only referred to “other persons.”
A question I have for those who claim the Founders were trying to protect slavery is why would they create the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, one provision of which was slavery would not be extended into the territories that became Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin?
The Founders were politicians, so maybe they did the political thing and kicked the slavery issue down the road for a future generation to solve. From their writings, it’s clear many of them were uncomfortable with slavery as it went against the principles of liberty. On the other hand, they also wanted to respect property rights.
George Washington said late in his life the biggest mistake the Founders made was not ending slavery once and for all.
To hear it from some people, the three-fifths clause is still in effect. It’s not. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments rendered it null and void. Again, the beauty of the ability to change the Constitution shines through.
I believe all Americans owe it to themselves to read our Constitution and study its history. You’ll find out more about what this country is about, and what American stands for. You’ll better appreciate being an American.
Above all, you’ll find out why this document has inspired millions. It’s worth the read.