Today is Constitution Day, a national holiday established in 2004. We celebrate it on September 17, because that was the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Or the people who were still there signed it, many of the Convention members having already left Philadelphia. The Framers were probably relieved, first to have the ordeal done with, and also because it was September, following a particularly sweltering summer of 1787. With no air conditioning. Or good fans. Or even open windows, which remained closed for fear of eavesdroppers.
Still, this is a good thing, to celebrate the Constitution. And for families with children, the Constitution Center has a website with lots of fun activities designed to teach kids about it.
The Constitution is actually a pretty easy document to read, once you get used to eighteenth century vocabularies and usage. It’s really pretty simple. It basically describes the process by which laws will be passed, who will pass them, how they will be elected to the task, and who is responsible for executing them. The principle doctrine that informed its creation is ‘separation of powers.’ The Framers were worried about political power. Most of the world of their day was governed using the ‘insane hereditary dictator’ system of government, a popular form throughout most of history, for reasons that defy comprehension, since it never works very well. Anyway, what is political power, how should it be wielded, who exercises it, how can it be channeled in positive, beneficial directions? Nobody knew. And when the Framers finished the document, they were generally skeptical about what they’d accomplished. What if it didn’t work? Because maybe it wouldn’t.
James Madison and the other Framers built the theoretical framework for a Constitution out of untested and frankly pretty radical political theories, which they believed in and thought would work in a practical sense, but which they couldn’t be sure of at all. Key to those theories was the notion that political power resided with the people, and not with a sovereign blessed by God. Throughout most of history, the theory had been that God had, in His Infinite Wisdom, placed everyone in a particular station in life, for inscrutable but wise reasons of His own. If you were a peasant, it was because God wanted you to be a peasant; if a nobleman, again, God’s will. And kings, of course, were likewise divinely appointed, and ruled by divine right, and therefore, by fiat, by unobstructed decree.
Now, its true that our political traditions were mostly British, and that Britain had, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, been a more or less constitutional monarchy. The political theories Madison believed in had, for the most part, and in rudimentary form, been tried out in Britain. The ever-evolving British constitution did allow for some freedom and personal autonomy; the Magna Carta was in both American and British backgrounds. So there is a sense in which the Framers took the best of their British political heritage and rejected the worst of it. I certainly don’t think a non-British colony, granted independence, would have come up with anything like our Constitution. It was still radical, and perceived by some as dangerous–dangerously monarchical by some, dangerously anti-monarchical by others. Was the office of the President too strong? Not strong enough?
Some conservatives today believe that our Constitution established America as a Godly nation, a Christian nation, with Christian values. We hear, for example, that the Framers opened their sessions with prayer. They didn’t. They did think about having a prayer once, but rejected it, because it might look bad; might look like they were squabbling so much they needed a priest to sort them out. It certainly never occurred to any of the Framers that they could pray. Wasn’t something gentlemen did.
It’s important to understand that that this Christian document malarkey isn’t remotely true, and that if it had been true, the document would have reflected the traditional understanding most Christian denominations had of political power. The Framers would have reinstituted the monarchy; would have provided for a king. When historians point out that the Framers were, for the most part, Deists, that isn’t an insult. The Constitution is a Deist document, reflecting Deist values. Deism is not atheism; Deists believed in God. But they believed in a distant God, who had set the universe on its path and chose not to intervene subsequently in how it worked. The Deist God was a clockmaker God, who wound up the universe and then let it tick along on its own.
This doctrine didn’t disenfranchise God, but it did empower ordinary (property-owning, white, male) citizens. People were generally free to decide what they would make of their own lives. Birth and wealth and privilege didn’t matter much; what mattered were the decisions of free men, working out their own destinies. And that meant a democratic document.
But the Framers were just as afraid of the raw power of pure democracy. They were savvy enough to know how easily mobs could form and be swayed and the destruction they could wreak. So democratic power had to be limited in scope, turned into a Republic, in which enlightened citizen-philosophers, elected by their fellow citizens, could make decisions that would be binding and conclusive.
Another familiar conservative trope is that the Framers intended a ‘limited government,’ that they would be appalled by the massive behemoth that our current federal government has become. This is likewise nonsense. The Framers were in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. They’d tried Federalism. They’d tried small government. They’d tried the ‘local government is best government’ experiment. If there was one thing that united them, it was disgust with the ineffectual, bankrupt mess the Articles had created.
Again, their solution was separation of powers. They wanted to disrupt the traditional centers of power. A democratic House, immediately responsive to voter concerns needed to be checked by a more contemplative Senate, protected from passionate demogoguery by its leisurely six year electoral cycle. If laws were passed that violated the rights of minorities, a Supreme Court could declare them invalid. Presidents nominated Court members, but those nominations required Senate ratification. The Framers didn’t want government to be powerless; indeed the very doctrine of a separation of powers presupposes that government would have significant powers that needed separating.
What they established (or were at least willing to live with) was a government that would be inefficient. They didn’t mind much that the process of passing a bill was cumbersome and ineffective. That was all right. They figured that sooner or later, legislators would compromise, and the measures that resulted would be regarded by most as ‘not great, but probably the best we can come up with, given the circumstances’. They were fine with half-measures, with watered down legislation, with debates in which egotists and gasbags and show-offs and grandstanders would hold forth endlessly on subjects they knew nothing about. They weren’t afraid, in other words, of American governance getting pretty comical at times. They were pessimistic optimists, in other words, realistic about human self-delusion, but also certain that in the end, future Americans would muddle along well enough.
They also knew their work wasn’t perfect, and that changes would need to be made. That’s why they included an amendment process. When James Madison was elected to the House he’d helped create, his first, self-imposed task was passing a Bill of Rights. That’s worked out pretty well. But the Constitution was absurdly accommodating to slavery, and most of the Framers knew well enough that that was going to be a problem, that they’d basically shuffled a major slavery confrontation off to their grandchildren. The Framers may well have been ‘inspired,’ but collectively, their work was informed by self-interest, anticipated personal economic benefits, and moral cowardice every bit as much as nobility and sagacious wisdom.
And the Constitution is deliberately and intentionally vague about a lot of issues that it might have been nice to have clarified. (Like, what they meant by ‘bear arms,’ for example!) From time to time, you’ll hear people declare, in terms of utter certitude, that some action or other by some President is ‘unconstitutional.’ That’s the basis for Speaker Boehner’s amazing, risible lawsuit against President Obama; the President unilaterally changed some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act. But it’s not remotely clear what the constitutional line is between ‘Congress passing legislation’ and ‘President executing laws.’ The Framers give us, like, two sentences on those issues. So you can make a case for the President’s actions being unconstitutional, but you can make an equally plausible case for those actions being perfectly constitutional. The Constitution is kind of infuriating that way.
And that’s what I like about it. It’s a framework, a set of guiding principles. It’s not Holy Writ. Did the Framers intend for the US of A having a modern social welfare state? Providing health care? Regulating car safety? Passing environmental legislation? Child safety laws? Gay marriage? Access to public buildings for people with disabilities? How could they possibly have anticipated any of those issues? Article One Section Eight does offer a few suggestions regarding the kinds of issues Congress might consider, but there’s no hint that those are the only questions they properly could address.
Do you want a big government or a smaller one? Do you want a bigger army or a smaller one? Do you want more money spent to help disadvantaged people, or do you want less money spent on those efforts?
We’re the People. We get to decide. And that’s the genius of the Constitution.