Have you read the U.S. Constitution? Chances are you are among the 72% of Americans who have NOT read one of the two most remarkable documents in this nation’s history. (The Declaration of Independence is the other document.) Seventy-two percent! Unbelievable! That was the result of a survey taken in 2015 by a group called the American Council of Trustees and Alumni Survey that found that 28 percent of Americans admitted that they had never read the Constitution.
Maybe it’s appropriate to discuss the Constitution today, as it has been bantered around repeatedly in the current presidential election campaign. It is a “living,” evolving document forged more than 200 years ago by a diverse group of men from 12 of our 13 original colonies (Rhode Island was not represented). They gathered in secret for four miserably hot and humid months (May to September) in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 in what has become known as the Constitutional Convention. Their chore was ostensibly to revise the weak and mostly worthless Articles of Confederation. Instead, the wisdom they may not have foreseen produced a document so simple, yet so complex, that has resonated with the ages and forms the basis for every law in our land.
For your consideration and enjoyment, I can recommend three books that discuss that convention and the creation of the Constitution: “Miracle at Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen; “The Summer of 1787 (The Men Who Invented the Constitution)” by David O. Stewart; and “The Quartet (Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789)” by Joseph J. Ellis.
Bowen said that both George Washington and James Madison, delegates from Virginia, used the term “miracle” in writing to contemporaries after the convention: Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette in France and Madison to Thomas Jefferson, our envoy to France at the time.
As the flyleaf of The Quartet says, “It is the story of the men most responsible – George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison – with the help of Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (no relation) in shaping the contours of American history by diagnosing the systemic dysfunctions created by the Articles of Confederation, manipulating the political process to force the calling of the Constitutional Convention, conspiring to set the agenda in Philadelphia, orchestrating the debate in the state ratifying conventions, and, finally, drafting the Bill of Rights to assure state compliance with the constitutional settlement.”
The Constitution was ratified by the required nine states (New Hampshire was the ninth) on June 21, 1788, and had been unanimously ratified by all 13 colonies (Rhode Island, even though it had sent no delegates to the convention, was the 13th) by May 29, 1790. Under the new Constitution, Washington was elected the first president of the newly created United States of America in November 1789.
The other members of “The Quartet?” Washington appointed Jay as the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He appointed Hamilton as the first secretary of the treasury. Madison was elected to the House of Representatives and later served as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state, and was elected in 1808 as our fourth president.
What has become known as the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was not a part of the original document. They were submitted to the states as a package on Sept. 25, 1789, and ratified completely by Dec. 15, 1791. They were largely the work of Madison and the Virginia delegation. It was Madison who took copious notes during the four months of the convention, although he was not the official secretary. It has been said by historians that any record of the convention’s proceedings most likely would not have been known if it had not been for Madison.
The Constitution currently has 27 amendments. The last one, ratified on May 7, 1992, delays the laws affecting congressional salaries from taking effect until after the next election for the House of Representatives. The 26th amendment, setting the voting age at 18, had been ratified 21 years earlier on July 1, 1971.
It is not easy to amend the Constitution. Perhaps the Founders intentionally made it difficult. There are two methods by which the Constitution can be amended, only one of which has been used: that is that Congress proposes an amendment – by a vote of two-thirds majority in each the House and the Senate – and then submits it to the states, of which three-fourths (38) of them must ratify before the amendment becomes law. The other method to amend is by a national convention called by the Congress for this purpose on the application of two-thirds (34) of the states. While it’s possible for such to happen, I think it is highly unlikely ever to occur even though there is a small grass-roots movement in some states to urge the legislatures to apply to Congress. In this modern age, I think such a convention would be chaotic.
When discussions lead to the Constitution, most of us immediately think in terms of the Bill of Rights, especially Amendments One and Two, perhaps the most contentious of the guarantee of “rights.”
The First Amendment, which lumps together five rights, reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or of 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.”
It is the freedom of religion part that seems to have sparked most of the controversy over the years. Read that again: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .” Just what does that mean? The complexity of the phrase packs more meaning than first comes to mind.
The Second Amendment – the Right to Bear Arms – probably has created more controversy over the past several decades than any other amendment, and continues without abatement. The meaning of the amendment is a matter of major disagreement among the current presidential candidates. The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Does that mean the same thing today as it did to the Founders more than 200 years ago when there was no standing national army and no plans for one? That is a major point of disagreement.
One other Amendment – the 14th, the Right to Citizenship – also has created a major stir, especially in light of illegal immigration over the years. It reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. . . .” The primary point of disagreement here relates to a child born on U.S. soil by a parent here illegally.
In our system of government, the final arbiter of any dispute over interpreting a constitutional question is the U.S. Supreme Court. And at any one time in history, the outcome of that decision can be decided by any five members of the Court – a majority of its nine members.
This remarkable document we call the Constitution has withstood the test of time. You should read it.
* * *
Ron Kenney was a reporter and editor for the former Daily Times-Advocate from 1952 to 1979 and was a copy editor on the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.