Undressing the Constitution

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Anyone who has lived in the United States of America for more than a few weeks has probably heard it referred to as the greatest country in the world. There are any number of reasons why patriots and pundits might say this—America’s enormous economy, vast military superiority, and intrinsic diversity of people are just a few that jump to mind.

Perhaps the most frequent reason given, however, is freedom.

It’s a common response, but the issue is that freedom isn’t a singular or static thing; some aspects of life can be free while others can be locked down. As the pen of Aaron Sorkin and his idyllic performance have so virally explained, the United States is hardly the only country with freedom, and even less so democracy—123 out of 192 nations around the world, or 64 percent, harbor some form of a democratic electoral process.

The freedom that’s so often cited as the reason for America’s superiority most likely refers to those granted to its citizens by the Constitution. Head to the right pockets of the Internet, and the distinction between the United States’ preeminent document and holy scripture becomes completely blurred—literally. Anything perceived as slightly against or attacking the Constitution is met with swift and sharp responses, even if the criticisms of the document come off as completely reasonable. The document is representative of the United States’ values, and it’s become exceedingly clear that some Americans will go to any length to defend it.

There’s no questioning its significance in shaping and defining the laws and principles of what has grown into the most powerful nation on Earth, and perhaps the most powerful in history. Just as with freedom and democracy, though, scores of countries have constitutions of their own which are observed and upheld.

So what’s the reason for such devout reverence to a document that’s been amended 27 times? BTRtoday spoke with Tom Donnelly of the National Constitution Center about the admiration for the Constitution, the values it upholds, and how we the people are encouraged to change it.

BTRtoday (BTR): When did the attitude of reverence toward the U.S. Constitution begin, and how has it developed since then?

Tom Donnelly (TD): There’s a degree to which it’s inherent in the Constitution itself, and it’s existed almost since the beginning with the mythologizing of key founders like George Washington as great figures in American history.

One thing I’ve looked at in my own scholarship over time is how our public schools have taught our founding and the Constitution from the early 20th century through today. One thing that’s interesting that you see is even when there were waves of scholarly criticism of the founders and the founding during the Progressive Era, where you have folks like Charles Beard attacking the founders, what you still see in our leading textbooks is a reverential account of the Constitution, the values that it enshrines, and the key characters.

I think there’s a way in which we as a diverse people of many backgrounds and ethnicities, for generations, have looked at the Constitution as a common statement of our shared values. But also, if you look at the preamble and its call for us to form a more perfect union, it’s a constant call towards Constitution reform and for us to live up to our highest ideals.

BTR: At this point, a number of countries have adopted democracies with constitutions of their own. What makes ours so special?

TD: I think part of it is, if you look at the breadth of the constitutional project, what the founders were doing was something that was largely new in American history. There’s a way in which the fact that our Constitution is so old and it’s been challenged over time, but the fact is that we still live under that government and that structure. We’ve been able to reform it in certain transformational ways over time—for instance the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, ratified after the Civil War, changed us in fundamental ways.

But still, the fact that we live under that same document, that longevity and that appreciation of a project that began over two centuries ago still continues today, even apart from what’s in the Constitution… just the sweep of that project goes to why it’s special.

BTR: What sorts of values in our Constitution come off as universally appealing to democracies around the world?

TD: I think one thing in our structure of government is checks and balances, separation of powers, and the big idea that we’re going to divide power to ensure that no single person, no single branch, and no single interest group can dominate our system. There have certainly been times where certain political parties have dominated more than others, but embedded within our system is that separation of powers that really forces the political process to slow down and forces political parties as they’ve developed to win multiple elections to really drive policy.

Another part of it are some of the fundamental liberties that we have enshrined in the Constitution, especially in our Bill of Rights—things like freedom of speech, press, religious liberty, the rights of the accused. Those sorts of things, especially free speech rights, are valuable to many democracies, and I think the idea that we’re going to set down these values and try to live by them and also debate about them is a key part of the American Constitutional system.

The other part that you get with the Declaration of Independence, but then enshrined in the Constitution in the 14th amendment, is equal protection under the law, this promise of equality. Again, there’s a degree to which we’re always living up to that ideal and defining it, but I think it’s one that’s a shining example for other countries as well.

BTR: Do you think it’s healthy to have such a devout view of our Constitution, and at what point does such a view detract from our ability to change it?

TD: I think there’s a danger if we ignore the Constitution’s call for continuing to try and form a more perfect union that we see in the preamble. The founders’ clear view is that we should continue to try and perfect our Constitution by putting in Article V, which allows for regular constitutional amendments, something that doesn’t require armed conflict or revolution.

Legally there’s something in there, and we can say we’ve learned better and we want to do things differently, which we’ve done by expanding the right to vote, ending slavery, enshrining equality in the Constitution, and all these powerful amendments that we’ve had over time.

BTR: Is it too difficult to change the Constitution?

TD: That’s a difficult question. I think one of the ways in which our tradition has developed over time is that a lot of the powers of the federal government as defined by the commerce laws in Article I, or the freedom of speech in the First Amendment, that these terms provide a framework for ongoing debate.

There is a core principle that they all embody, but they also welcome us to debate in the political arena and in the court system what they mean. So there’s a dynamism in our system, that we have these shared values that we battle over in very passionate ways, and that goes back to the founding.