Happy Constitution Day!
OK, OK, it’s a contrived holiday, invented by Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia during those few moments when he hasn’t been scheming to transfer federal agency offices into his home state. (His triumph is the U.S. Coast Guard Operations Center in Martinsburg, WV, several hundred miles from any coast . . .. .)
But, as the author of a book on the writing of the Constitution, The Summer of 1787, it’s hard not to feel warmly towards even a contrived holiday. The fact is, the writing of the Constitution remains a great story of human striving, success, and failure, which resonates through the years. It’s a hoot that my book now will be translated into Arabic and will be accessible to a lot of people in the Middle East who live under arbitrary, nondemocratic regimes.
The Constitution’s successes have pretty clear — the nation’s still around, under (mostly) the same government, 222 years after the Constitution was first signed. There were a few real innovations (using impeachment as a purely political device, workable federalism). Representative democracy was established through a lot of grimy but workable compromises.
Moreover, we’ve changed the document, mostly for the better (let’s overlook Prohibition, shall we?):
- Free speech and religion rights (First Amendment)
- Rights for criminal defendants (5th and 6th Amendments)
- Ending slavery (15th Amendment)
- Guaranteeing due process and equal protection against state governments (14th amendment)
- Guaranteeing voting rights for blacks (15th Amendment)
- Guaranteeing voting rights for women (19th Amendment)
- Direct election of senators (17th Amendment)
A few problems still fester, like the electoral college and the incredible shrinking Fourth Amendment protection against government intrusions, and how we can rein in the increasingly powerful executive branch when Congress functions so fitfully. Still, the U.S. government stands as the world’s longest-running experiment in constitutional democracy.
So let’s recognize that today — go out and vote somewhere, or speak your mind (civilly, please) on some public issue, or just feel good about being an American.
And one of the most amazing things is this system, with all its flaws, effectively governs such a huge, complex country. I believe the U.S. works quite a bit better than any of the other really large countries. Those guys in Philly deserve three cheers!