By Ben Lenhart
In today’s world, the Constitution is more relevant than ever, with almost daily headlines in many hot areas ranging from gun rights, abortion and freedom of religion to the power of the President and the division of war powers. Welcome to a new column on the Constitution of the United States. Americans can truly be proud of this amazing document, which has endured for more than 200 years and has safeguarded the country through thick and thin. Each column will look at one of today’s most urgent Constitutional topics, and explain how our Supreme Court has interpreted it. My goal is to explain the Constitution without taking sides or offering political opinions. I have taught Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law Center for more than 20 years, and my hope is that over time this column will give the reader a solid understanding of our nation’s most important document.
Here are some key facts about the Constitution.
The Oldest Constitution. Drafted in Philadelphia in 1787, the Constitution is now 230 years old and is widely regarded as the oldest written constitution in the world in use today. While a few countries (such as England) have older documents that form part of their founding principles, no country has an older constitution still in use contained in a single written document.
Short and Stable. At just 10 pages the Constitution is stunningly short, especially when its goal is nothing less than laying out the fundamental governing principles for our nation. It gets right to the point. For example, many books have been written on freedom of speech, but the Constitution cuts to the chase by stating: “Congress shall pass no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Those 10 words are a core part of what it means to be an American. With very few exceptions, Americans can say what we want even if it means sharply criticizing those in power. In many countries around the world, you would be thrown in jail or worse if you dared to criticize the President or other powerful leaders, but in the U.S., that right is fiercely protected by the Constitution.
The Constitution is remarkably stable. The Bill of Rights—the first 10 Amendments—was added in 1791, very soon after ratification. Since then, the Constitution has been changed a mere 17 times in more than 225 years. Two of those 17 Amendments banned and then “un-banned” “intoxicating liquors,” four of the Amendments extended voting rights, and many of the other amendments dealt with election procedures and political succession. Two of the most significant Amendments resulted from the Civil War, with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and the 14th Amendment—probably the most important Amendment since the Bill of Rights—ensuring that all Americans would have equal protection of the law and due process of law (more on these in later columns).
Virginia’s Big Role. Virginians can be doubly proud of the Constitution—no state played a bigger role in shaping our founding document. Key Virginians include George Washington (who presided over the Constitutional Convention), Thomas Jefferson (whose ideas on liberty and small government were important influences in forming the Constitution), George Mason (who attended the Constitutional Convention as Virginia delegate and demanded that the Constitution include a list of fundamental rights), and, last but not least, James Madison (who had a leading role in drafting the Constitution and is often called the “Father of the Constitution”). Other Virginias who influenced the Constitution or its ratification include Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph and Richard Henry Lee. With its outsized role, Virginia could easily be called the “Constitution State” (although Connecticut has already claimed that mantle).
The Second Constitution. Our current Constitution is actually our second. Our first, the Articles of Confederation, was ratified in 1781 and replaced by the current Constitution in 1788. Its short lifespan can be chalked up to its many shortcomings: no executive or judicial branches, no effective way for the federal government to collect adequate revenue, no real power to enforce a “common market” among the states, and no Bill of Rights. These flaws were all fixed in the new Constitution.
Slavery. As great as our Constitution is, it is not perfect, and one of its most glaring flaws is slavery. While the word “slavery” appears nowhere in the Constitution, there are no less than four provisions in the Constitution dealing with slavery, and in fact slavery is singled out for favorable treatment in Article Five, which prohibits any amendment that would ban the importation of slaves prior to 1808. Many founding fathers fought to abolish slavery, or at least to eliminate its recognition in the Constitution, but those efforts failed in the face of intense political pressure in the opposite direction. In the end, most of those involved came to realize that for the new Constitution to have any chance of ratification, they would need to compromise on slavery. The question of slavery would finally be resolved 70 years later in the bloodiest war in nation’s history.
Liberty. Liberty is a central principle enshrined in the Constitution, and is guaranteed by the very fabric of the Constitution. The 5th and 14th Amendments promise that your “liberty” can’t be taken away without due process of law. The Preamble tells us that a core purpose of the Constitution is to secure the “blessings of liberty.” The Constitution separates the powers of government into different branches and gives each branch checks and balances over the others. It does this to avoid tyranny, corruption and the unjust exercise of power, but in so doing it also protects the liberty of each American. But liberty is not free, and is often the first victim to fall when the dictator takes power or the rule of law is lost—a lesson taught time and again by troubled nations around the globe. That is why Americans must be eternally vigilant in protecting and upholding our Constitutional safeguards. Without them, we risk losing the fundamental rights and liberties that we have come to take for granted in America.
[Ben Lenhart is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has taught Constitutional Law at Georgetown Law Center for more than 20 years. He lives with his family and lots of animals on a farm near Hillsboro.]