Sometimes it seems the only people who celebrate Constitution Week are the Daughters of the American Revolution. That’s unfortunate.
Constitution Week begins Tuesday, the 232nd anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. It celebrates the document that forms the framework of America’s political and legal systems.
It’s in the Constitution that you find the separation of powers — giving certain powers to the president, others to Congress, still others to the federal courts in such a way that no one branch can do anything it wishes without the consent of the others.
It lays out that there will be a Senate and a House of Representatives. It describes when and how we’ll elect people to those houses, who can serve and who they represent.
It describes who can qualify to be president. It sets up the Electoral College, which has been much maligned of late but which has overall served the country well.
It establishes the Supreme Court and enables Congress to create lesser federal courts.
It describes how a president can be impeached.
It defines, in a broad way, how states relate to one another and how to admit new states to the union. Remember, when the Constitution was signed there were only 13 states; now there are 50, all added under the rules established in 1787.
When it was signed, many of the men involved in the Constitutional Convention believed the document was sufficient to establish the new government of the United States. Others were particularly concerned about the new government’s ability to limit the rights and freedoms of its people. That was the issue that drove the Americans to revolt against England; the American Revolution ended only four years before the Constitutional Convention, so all who were there were well aware of what an overbearing government could do.
To address their concerns, leaders proposed 12 amendments to the original document that listed things the government specifically could not do. Ten of the amendments were passed in 1789 and became the Bill of Rights:
• The government cannot control what you think or what you say, whether in conversation, in print or in a public gathering. It specifically includes what you think about your relationship with God (or gods) and how you express it, and it ensures you can seek a remedy if you think government has wronged you.
• The government cannot take your guns.
• The government can’t force you to take soldiers into your home without your consent, except in time of war — and even then a law must be passed to describe how it can legally do so.
• The government cannot search your person, your home or other possessions except with a legally obtained warrant.
• The government can’t prosecute you without a grand jury affirming the case against you before it goes to trial. The government can’t try you twice for the same crime, and it can’t force you to testify against yourself. It can’t punish you without due process of law, and it can’t take your property for public use without paying you a fair price.
• The government can’t hold you in jail indefinitely or judge you in secret. You have the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. You also have the ability to call witnesses in your defense.
• You have the right to trial by jury in civil cases.
• The government cannot charge excessive bail or fines, and it cannot inflict cruel and unusual punishment.
• The amendments can’t be read to say you can’t do something just because the Constitution doesn’t say you can.
• The last amendment of the Bill of Rights specifies that the federal government doesn’t have any power the Constitution doesn’t give it. Any such power belongs to the state or to the people themselves.
Incidentally, the Bill of Rights were Articles 3 through 12 that were proposed in 1789.
Article 1 describes how the House of Representatives would grow with the population of the country. It was never approved and was rendered moot by the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
Article 2 was finally approved in 1992 as the 27th Amendment. It limits Congress’s ability to give itself a pay raise, forcing any such raise to take effect after the next election.
The Constitution was amended a total of 27 times, including the Bill of Rights and the 1992 congressional pay amendment. Other amendments define what it is to be an American citizen, eliminate slavery and expand voting rights, among other things.
Many of the things we see everyday in our political and legal systems grew out of the Constitution and its amendments.
The Constitution is worth reading over during next week’s celebration of its birthday. One source online is www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution. Check it out.