A Constitutional Perspective
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
That quote is from the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration adopted by a rebellious group of white men in Philadelphia July 4, 1776. (Shots had been fired at the Concord Bridge more than a year earlier, April 19, 1775. Unrest and frustration with British rule percolated among some factions of colonists for years.) The War that followed the Declaration ground on until 1783.
Starting in 1781 representatives of the colonies (still at war with England) came together under the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles of Confederation there was no executive (president) and no supreme court. Agreement of nine of the thirteen states was required for the Confederation Congress to approve anything, and once a decision was made there was no method to enforce the decision. “A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states.”
Six years later in 1787, four years after the end of the Revolutionary War, another group of white men gathered in Philadelphia and put together another document, the Constitution of the United States. In school we are taught a nearly mythic version of this gathering in Philadelphia, a version suffused with lofty rhetoric and noble personages. For some (WeBelieveWeVote.org), the resulting document and system of governance even takes on religious overtones, a document written by men guided by the hand of God. The reality is far more interesting, complicated, and human. The system of governance set forth in the Constitution is a series of compromises among states fractious over the issue of slavery (See Connecticut Compromise—the compromise that gave us a bicameral Congress). If you can take the time, the wikipedia article “History of the United States Constitution” offers a sense of the complexity and length of the process.
The white men in Philadelphia, the “founding fathers,” were intent on assembling a federation of States that could present its united face to the rest of the world, engage other countries in trade, and regulate commerce between the several States.
The phrases “all men are created equal” and “the consent of the governed” do not appear in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the word “People” appears in the body of the Constitution only once, in this sentence: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.” The Constitution is all about the rules of a federal government, rules States could agree upon by compromise to allow this fledgeling union to come together for the benefit of commerce and trade. The process was confusing, messy, and contentious, just like every political process before or since.
Of the thirty-nine signers of the Constitution only six were also signers on the Declaration, only five of those thirty-nine also signed the Articles of Confederation. This was a different group, a group with different goals. Gone was the lofty rhetoric of the firebrands who had put their names on the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration is about all the human reasons for breaking the rules, the human reasons for an act of rebellion. The Constitution is all about making rules.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, are often thought of as integral to Constitution itself. The word “people” is found only once in the body of the Constitution, as I mention above. In contrast the word “people” is found in the first ten amendments five times. The first ten amendments (The Bill of Rights) were NOT part of the original Constitution. They were proposed at the first meeting of the Congress, in part to placate the anti-Federalists, folks not at all pleased with this new federal government and its structure.
Take-homes for me:
1) The writing and acceptance of the U.S. Constitution was a messy and contentious process. Politics is messy. It is only through hindsight history takes on fine lines, mythic proportion, and even religious overtones.
2) Compromises around slavery shaped the structure of the government the Constitution established. These compromises engendered two un-democratic, unrepresentative institutions, the Senate and the Electoral College, with which we still struggle.
3) The Bill of Rights (the ten of the twelve amendments proposed by the First Congress that were actually ratified), was an afterthought to the business of forming a federal government good for trade and commerce.
4) For 230 years we have struggled to realize the lofty human goals written in the Declaration of Independence. We have struggled within and sometimes against the governmental structures established by the Constitution. Those struggles are written in the twenty-seven amendments appended to that Constitution, including the first ten. We would do well to study our history and remember while the arc of history may bend toward justice, that arc will not so bend without our effort and attention.
Keep to the high ground, Jerry
P.S. Much of the above comes from an online copy of the Constitution and all its amendments found on line here. I’ve copied below the original wording that came with the Congressional proposal to the States of what became the Bill of Rights two years later (in late 1791).
Congress OF THE United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles [the first twelve amendments, only ten of which were ratified] be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.