Got thinking about the U.S. Constitution as I slowly savored my morning snack of two spoonfuls of Smuckers peanut butter along with a handful of baby carrots. You know, with a name like Smuckers it’s got to be good. As I vigorously licked it off the roof of my mouth, a news story caught my attention.
It was about the Constitution, the original document. I worry about the Constitution, because there are so many different opinions about what it says “we the people” have a right to do or not to do. Aside from the freedom to lick the roof of your own mouth, that is. It’s all about our rights, you see, including the right to believe what you want to believe, whether you deal with facts or alternate facts. Alternate facts come in handy when there are no facts to support what you believe, but you can always attribute it to the Constitution.
The truth is that the more people talk about their constitutional rights, the less they seem to know about the Constitution. Not that I am a constitutional scholar myself, but I do know that if you weigh your right not to do something that is inconvenient to you personally against the right of the rest of us not to get sick and die… Well, this is a democracy and the majority still rules, for the time being anyway.
I know the Constitution as a piece of paper is worth a big chunk of change— roughly 200 million dimes, 400 million nickels or 20 million dollars, the predicted price of one of the 500 original printings that will soon be up for auction. We’re talking about original as in the first printings after the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Why so valuable? Well, as one collector of such memorabilia was heard to say, this original copy could have very well been handled by George Washington, Ben Franklin or Alexander Hamilton. There is no guarantee any of them did — handle it, that is— but they must have handled some of those original copies handed out at the Philly convention. Just the idea that something is worth millions of dollars just because someone famous may have touched it seems a bit quirky to me. Then again, how much is one of those Elvis scarves worth that he may have used to wipe the sweat from his face?
Then there is the idea that an original copy, an oxymoron that contradicts itself, could be worth that much seems very weird and, at the same time, very American. It seems to me that a copy of anything, original or not, shouldn’t be worth that kind of money.
The original version of the Constitution will probably never go up for auction. It is secured, for the time being, with the original Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights in the Capitol Rotunda. But, then again, who’d have thunk flag-waving Americans would try to overrun the same building looking to hang the Speaker of the House and Vice President? If we keep this up, we won’t even be able to give the Constitution away because of self-proclaimed patriots of this ilk. That’s right. I wrote ilk and I meant it. They aren’t even worth a four-letter word, but I can think of seven letters that define what they did: treason. And seven more for the man who urged them to do it: traitor.
Many of those who tried to overturn the fictional phony election on January 6 will tell you that they were trying to right a wrong, defending the Constitution as an act of their own free will and not at the direction of the deposed president.
It reminds me of another oxymoron voiced by Isaac Bashevis Singer: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
Returning to the Constitution, we see a host of defenders on both sides of every issue from racism to executive privilege. Almost half of adult Americans don’t know the three branches of government, according to a 2020 Constitution Day civics survey, let alone what is really in the Constitution. That’s up from 39 percent before the pandemic, so it appears this was one variant of flu that made us smarter.
Judging by the divergent opinions, the messages attributed to this defining document seems to be dictated by political leanings. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The hallowed Constitution itself ran into partisan politics and took nine months for the required nine states (of 13) to ratify. Seems an appropriate amount of time to give birth. Anti-federalists feared the strong central government it advocated. Rhode Island, the runt of the colonial litter, didn’t even bother to send a delegation to the convention.
It turns out that most of the noble ideals we attribute to the Constitution that emerged in 1787 were not there at its birth. It took some growing up to get it where it is today. In fact, with all the hoopla about fair elections and voting rights, we forget that if we were still abiding by the original document, most Americans would not be allowed to vote. In fact, it was only men, and white men at that, who were given that “privilege.” Blacks were subsequently given the right to vote in the 15th Amendment in 1869— and only the adult males of that race— because women weren’t cleared as voting Americans until the passage of the 19th Amendment a half century later.
The only real right granted in the original document was, believe it or not, the right to own slaves.
By the way, the Constitution or Bill of Rights never states that “all men are created equal,” as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence more than a decade before. Furthermore, it was a Constitutional amendment, the 13th, that really freed the slaves, not the Emancipation Proclamation. The only real right granted in the original document was, believe it or not, the right to own slaves.
Therefore, it was the amendments that came later that really instilled the rights we all proclaim to have and not that Holy Grail of Democracy, the original Constitution. In fact, the word “democracy” was not even mentioned. Nor was the word “God.” We leave it up to our money — more specifically our small change — to affirm “In God We Trust.”
The government that it really created was a Republic, governed by legislators who represent a group of citizens in a defined geographic area. Well, I guess that counts as a democracy as flawed as it sometimes seems to be.
Among the misconceptions about the Constitution is that there must be a separation of church and state. That is never explicitly stated, although the First Amendment— the first in the Bill of Rights— does declare that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That is as close as the Constitution comes, but Supreme Court rulings since have effectively validated this separation.
Nobody abused his constitutional presidential executive entitlement like Donald Trump, who took it a step forward by continuing to claim executive privilege as a private citizen. Then there was the attempt to subvert the election outcome in Georgia; filing meritless lawsuits of election fraud rejected by a bipartisan judiciary repeatedly, and then there was that crybaby attempt at inciting an insurrection.
“Fight like hell!” he urged supporters just before they converged on the Capitol. “You’ll never back our country with weakness. You have to show strength.”
Since the former president abused the Constitution as no other had before him, we can be thankful that he didn’t do something that he could have done constitutionally under the “War Powers Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, Congress is empowered to declare war —something it hasn’t done since World War II—but the President, as Commander in Chief, can send our troops into armed conflict anywhere in the world. Truman did it in Korea and LBJ in Vietnam, as have other Presidents since.
President Trump, to his credit, started no new wars. He chose instead to declare war on the Constitution.