By Tobias A. Dorsey
What you hold in your hands includes America's fundamental legal document--the Constitution of the United States. We celebrate it each year on Constitution Day, September 17, the anniversary of the date in 1787 on which it was signed. In a sense, though, we celebrate it every day of the year.
On any given day a lawmaker, judge, or executive officer--at the federal level or in the states--may be taking an oath to support it. Every single day, in Washington and across the country, people draft bills, make policies, and take actions with the Constitution very much in mind. Whatever it is they want to do, they need to know if it is legal and legitimate--that is, if it is constitutional. Does the government have the power to do it? Even so, does it violate separation of powers or state sovereignty or individual rights?
Those questions must always be asked, and the search for answers must always begin here, in the constitutional text. It doesn't hold all the answers, of course--nor can it. We have shelf upon shelf of legal opinions and still do not have all the answers.
The text is not short enough to memorize, but it's plenty short enough to read--and reading it is exactly what you should do. Not just once, either. Read it, set it aside, come back to it, read it again. Each time, you might learn something new.
It doesn't take long before you come across something that will furrow your brow. The first thing you may notice is the archaic colonial style, with all those capital letters and British spellings. If you're a drafter by trade or just a stickler by nature, you might notice technical and stylistic oddities, like the difference in the use of periods between "SECTION. 1." in the main body of the Constitution and "SECTION 1." in the Amendments.
And then, a mere 170 words or so in, just as you're feeling virtuous and gaining momentum, you stumble across a phrase like "three fifths of all other Persons"--the census measure of a slave--and it brings you to a stop. There it is, even now; but you might read it again to be sure.
Funny thing about the Constitution: we never take anything out of it. We strike words from federal statutes all the time, but we change the Constitution in only one way, by adding new words at the end. So in 1868 we tacked on the Fourteenth Amendment and that "three fifths" rule was abolished. But the words are still there on the books, as immortal as they are obsolete.
We do this overriding-by-tacking-on more than you might think--27 times in all. We added 10 amendments in 1791 and we've added another new amendment every 12 years or so, on average. The last change was ratified in 1992, so we seem to be in a bit of a dry spell, but we're not anywhere near the longest gap between amendments. It was 61 years between ratification of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 and the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. There are six other amendments that have been submitted to the states but never ratified. And many other proposed amendments are introduced in every Congress. (Drafting a proposed constitutional amendment may seem like pretty lofty work, until you've done it a dozen times or more.)
Some parts of the Constitution we know almost by heart. We expect to find mention of the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court--and indeed we do find them. Freedom of speech and the right to a jury trial--yes, there they are. And yet many things we take for granted are missing. The Constitution tells us about the President's State of the Union message, for example, but it doesn't tell us how many Justices are on the Supreme Court.
There are many other things that we might expect to find in the Constitution but never do. We can search in vain for a clause that captures a principle like "checks and balances" or "separation of church and state" or "one man, one vote". Nowhere does it mention political parties or national parks or innocent until proven guilty. And yet what we do find are a great many other words that we had no idea were there. Emoluments? Letters of Marque and Reprisal? Corruption of Blood?
Some parts of the Constitution may seem rather odd. There are clauses here that weren't covered by Schoolhouse Rock or civics class or law school. And yet many of these clauses are enormously important, even today. You may not be familiar with the Recommendations Clause or the Appointments Clause, but they routinely arise at the White House and on Capitol Hill. And there are many other clauses to consider, many of which you may not have learned--yet. The Supreme Court has held many acts of Congress unconstitutional over the years, and has relied on many different clauses: the Presentment Clause, the Export Clause, the Compensation Clause, the Bill of Attainder Clause, the Elections Clause, and the Copyright Clause, to name just a few.
All of those clauses are here--to be read, and pondered, and read again. To be skimmed or quoted, but also to be carefully parsed, word by word, perhaps even comma by comma. The way it's always been done, ever since 1789, day by day, Congress by Congress, generation by generation.
Isn't it time you joined in?
Table of Contents
Legislative Process Flowchart
Tips for Contacting Your Members of Congress
The Declaration of Independence
The Constitution of the United States
The Bill of Rights
Amendments XI - XXVII
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.
Painting by Howard Chandler Christy"While many had a hand in this process, it was New York lawyer and future American politician and diplomat Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) who actually took on the task of penning the Constitution, putting into prose the resolutions reached by the convention. Morris had the considerable help of the records that James Madison (1751-1836) of Virginia had kept as he managed the debates among the delegates and suggested compromises. In that capacity and in that he designed the system of checks and balances among the legislative (Congress), the executive (the president of the United States), and the judicial (Supreme Court), Madison had considerable influence on the document's language, quite rightfully earning him the designation 'father of the constitution.'" From "Who wrote the U.S. Constitution?" on Answers.com
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