The Constitution: harder than it looks

We kind of hate the Constitution today. We wish it wasn’t so elastic. It allows for so many interpretations; we wish it would just tell us what to do. But of course the only reason it’s a viable document is that it doesn’t tell us what to do.  It gives us a framework of justice to apply to specific instances, and it’s not the document’s fault if we sometimes use its safe space for evil. That’s our fault. We make that choice.


“We the People, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of this liberty to ourselves, and to our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution, of the United States of America.”

Most of us are familiar with this long sentence. Perhaps you, like me,  learned it on Schoolhouse Rock, and prefer to sing it. But by now, you may see the revolutionary principles and ground-breaking ideals in it more clearly.


After years of trying not to have a real centralized government, and years of trying to put state interests below national interests while keeping individual interests above national and state interests, we get this line. We, the people (not the states) of America, realize that if we want to make this experiment work, and if we want to experience the best government ever attempted in human history, we have to create and honor a binding legal document that establishes a unified, federal government.


The year is 1787. The Articles of Confederation have been in place for 10 years. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783, so we have been an independent nation for just four years. All in all, Americans have been in turmoil for 12 years. This is the point at which most new governments fall apart and the descent into civil war and terror begins. But we fulfilled the principles of our revolution, and peacefully assembled delegates to work together to write a new Constitution.


Even that majority of Americans who did not want a powerful central government were persuaded that it was necessary to keep the states from dissolving the union. They sent delegates to Philadelphia to figure out how to create a government strong enough to protect its people, but bound enough by principles of natural rights not to turn to tyranny.


These delegates were not the famous men who signed the Declaration. Adams was not there; Jefferson was not there. The delegates were mostly unknowns; lawyers, farmers, businessmen. They were not professional politicians. But they were those well-read, revolutionary Americans the rest of the world marveled at. Those men produced a great document because they put themselves second to the ideal of America. They had their moment of absolute power and used it to enshrine natural rights.


We all remember learning about the debates over how to make sure big and small states were equally represented in Congress, the federal government. We feel bored, again because we know how it ended, and the solution is so obvious, it just seems stupid to waste time reading about how they took so long to figure it out.


But the point of those debates about representation is not what ideas were tossed around, and which idea finally won out. It’s that the debates happened at all. We’ve already established that most revolutionary governments quickly implode. Here, faced with a real problem, with no clear answer (despite all our hindsight insisting it was clear), delegates to the convention insisted on figuring out what the best solution was,  on coming up with a solution that really lived up to the principles of the revolution. Instead of saying “We can’t fix this; there’s no solution that everyone will agree on”, and getting out their guns and starting a civil war, these delegates put themselves through hours of philosophical debate in a stiflingly hot room until they fulfilled the trust put in them.


The Founders didn’t “know” that the average American had to consent to this government for it to work; they decided that the average American had to do so, and they subordinated themselves to that purpose. And so they created, as delegate Peirce Butler said, “not the best government they could devise, but the best the people would receive.”


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