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The Constitution - Charter of Freedom

Constitution? Who Cares?

Anyone who cares about freedom has to care about the Constitution of the United States, and has to know a little something about it. This document, now more than two hundred twenty years old, is the enduring foundation for the American governmental system of representative democracy and the human rights promised to all under that system.

In other words, the Constitution is a living referee over those who run the government from day to day, designed to ensure that everyone has an equal say about who should be in charge (the vote), and that everyone’s rights to express their views, to advocate for change, to believe and worship according to their convictions, and to pursue the “good life” as they see it, are respected.

The world’s longest surviving written charter of government, the U.S. Constitution affects not just Americans, but just about everyone else in the world. Its ideals, drawn from a long history of ideas and cultures, have in turn been uniquely influential throughout the modern world. Over one hundred other countries have used the U.S. Constitution as a model for their own.

How it Came About

The U.S. Constitution was formulated, agreed upon, and adopted more than two hundred years ago through a very thorough and careful process that began in 1787 and was completed in 1791. After declaring their independence from Great Britain in 1776, the thirteen colonies on the East Coast of the North American continent became the thirteen original states of a new nation – the United States of America. After successfully resisting British attempt keep them in its empire, their former rulers recognized their independence with a treaty in 1783. The Americans quickly discovered, however, that under the first governing document they adopted, the Articles of Confederation, the national government was too weak – the thirteen state governments could not act in a unified, effective way.

In May 1787, delegates representing all of the states except Rhode Island gatherer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began hammering out new terms for the national government. The deliberations and debates dragged through the entire, sweltering summer, with disagreements at times becoming so fierce that the whole thing almost fell apart. Finally, on September 17, 1787, all twelve state delegations agreed upon a new Constitution, which began, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But it wasn’t yet a done deal. That phrase, “We the People…,” pointed to two core principles underlying the Constitution: 1) that sovereignty (or supreme governing authority) resides in the people rather than government as such; and 2) and that the written Constitution must embody the people’s sovereign will.

In order be grounded in those principles, the Constitution had to based on more than the views of a few elites gathered in Philadelphia. To be genuinely rooted in the will of the people, each state had to call special conventions, in which delegates selected by the voting citizenry, had to decide whether to give the proposed Constitution a thumbs up or thumbs down. Only when nine of the thirteen states (much more than a simple majority) ratified or approved the document, would it become the supreme law of the land.

Again, the debate was fierce, with “anti-Federalists” mounting a passionate “No” campaign, arguing the Constitution would give the national government too much power. It was not until June 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify. that the Constitution went into effect.

At that point, though, it was effective only in the nine states that had approved it. Two large, influential states – Virginia and New York – without which the United States would not have been viable had not yet come into the new Union. In both states the conflict was intense, with those “for” and “against” about evenly divided. In Virginia, ratification had to overcome the powerful oratory of opponent Patrick Henry, but it finally came in a close 89-79 vote on June 25, four days after the New Hampshire vote. New York kept the nation waiting another month, and even then the vote in favor came only by a very narrow margin, 30-27.

On March 4, 1789, the first Congress under the Constitution convened in the nation’s temporary capital city, New York. George Washington, who led the military struggle for independence, was elected President without opposition. On a small balcony overlooking Wall Street, the revered General took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, as cannons booming from ships in the harbor offered a 13-gun salute.

But the story of how the Constitution came about still wasn’t over. In fact, one of the most important episodes had yet to be completed. The Constitution had set out the roles and powers of the various components of government, but was silent on the rights of citizens – the people being governed. That silence give rise to the weightiest argument raised by the Anti-Federalists. At first, the advocates of the Constitution (the Federalists) had argued that no enumeration of rights would be necessary in the national Constitution, since most of the individual state constitutions already included protections for basic rights. Finally, though, in order to sway the votes necessary to win ratification, the Federalists promised that guarantees for the liberties that the Americans had fought a revolution to secure, would be added. And once the new government got underway, they kept their promise. On September 15, 1791, ten amendments specifying individual rights were incorporated into the Constitution. Known collectively as the Bill of Rights, it became the most cherished part of the Constitution.

But what exactly were those rights? Come to think of it, what’s an “amendment”? Even before going into those important questions, though, we need first to look more closely at the kind of government the Constitution set up. What are the key facts and principles that everyone should know about?

The Key Principles

The nation’s founders adopted four key principles in crafting the Constitution.

Republicanism

In deciding on the basic type of government they wanted, the founders rejected all the main options that had predominated throughout the history of western civilization: monarchy (rule by one), aristocracy (rule by a hereditary class), and direct democracy (rule by the people). They chose instead a republic – which places power in the citizenry, who exercise that power through their elected representatives. This was a bold innovation, for though they drew to some extent on historical precedents from ancient Greece and Rome, a large-scale republic such as this had never before been attempted. Success was far from a foregone conclusion. When asked, after the 1787 convention, what form of government the nation would have, the famous and now elderly sage from Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin, replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Federalism

One of the main conundrums the Constitution’s framers had to resolve was how to make the national government strong enough to function effectively without making it so strong that it would easily devolve into tyranny. A confederation – a relatively a loose compact between strong independent states, which is what they had under the original Articles of Confederation – had proven unworkable when it came to interacting with other powers in the world and in resolving disputes between the states. Thus, some convention delegates wanted something close to a unitary government, in which the states would simply be regional departments of the national government, implementing its policies, directly under its control. But most thought that such a government would quickly end up oppressing the people – just like the monarchy they had only recently overthrown – rather than exert power on their behalf.

So, they came up with a middle way – federalism, in which power is divided between a central government and regional units. The national (or federal) and state governments thus each have their own spheres of authority, exercised in accordance with the will of the people. Article 1 (Section 8) of the Constitution specifies certain powers to be reserved for the national governments, such as conducting foreign relations, “coining Money,” and running the Post Office. Other powers (excerpt for certain ones explicitly denied them in Section 10), remain with the sates.

At the same time, Article VI nails down the supremacy of the federal government in matters of national concern, stating that “the Constitution, and the laws of the United States” along with all treaties made with other nations “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.”

Thus, while the Constitution gave clear, supreme authority to the national government on crucial matters, it distributed some sovereign powers to the states. Though the terminology can be confusing – that’s federalism: a system of two sovereigns – the states and nation – in which a degree of competition or tension between the two was actually intended to help prevent the power of either from getting out of hand.

Separation of Powers

The same principle of distributing power to more than one center can be seen in the creation of three distinct branches of the national government. The first three Articles of the Constitution assign the lawmaking, law-enforcing, and law-interpreting functions to separate branches of government: Article I (the legislative branch), Article II (the executive branch), and Article III (the judicial branch).

Checks and Balances

In separating the powers of government in this way, the framers of the Constitution were influenced by the theory of the French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) that such counter-balancing of the sectors of government was indispensable to preventing the government from becoming tyrannical. Accordingly, the Constitution not only divides the power between the three branches, it sets up system of “checks and balances” giving each branch some degree of oversight and control over the actions of the other branches.

Separation of Powers & Checks & Balances

Legislative Branch

Executive Branch

Judicial Branch

House of Representatives

(2-year term)

Senate

(6-year term)

President

(4-year term, 2-term limit)

Judges

(Life term)

Powers*

  • Passes all federal laws
  • Establishes lower federal courts & the number of judges
  • Can override presidential veto with a two-thirds vote
  • Can impeach the president
  • Passes the federal budget
  • Approves treaties
  • Approves presidential appointments
  • Declares war

Powers

  • Approves or vetoes acts of Congress
  • Can call Congress into special session
  • Nominates Supreme Court and federal judges
  • Can pardon people convicted in federal court
  • Makes foreign treaties
  • Commander-in-chief of armed forces

Powers

  • Can invalidate, on grounds of unconstitutionality, laws passed by Congress
  • Can invalidate executive branch orders or actions on grounds of unconstitutionality or lack of authorizing legislation

Checks & Balances on Congressional Powers

  • Laws must be passed by both houses of Congress – a check on power within the legislative branch
  • President can veto legislation
  • Supreme Court can rule laws unconstitutional

Checks & Balances on Executive Powers

  • Congress can
    • Reject legislation requested by president
    • Override vetoes
    • Impeach & remove President
    • Senate can refuse to confirm nominees or ratify treaties
  • Supreme Court Can declare presidential acts unconstitutional

Checks & Balances on Judicial Powers

  • Congress can
    • Change the number & jurisdiction of federal courts
    • Impeach & remove federal judges
    • Propose constitutional amendments to override Supreme Court decisions
    • Can reject presidential appointments of judges
  • President appoints federal judges

*major examples of powers and checks and balances in all columns – not comprehensive

Here’s how it works in a little more detail. Article 1 sets up a bicameral legislature, that is, dual legislative bodies: the Senate, to which each state elects two senators to six-year terms of service; and the House of Representatives, whose members serve two-year terms, with the number of representatives from each state is proportioned to population size. Originally, the idea was that the Senate would be comprised of the more prosperous and well-educated classes, whom, it was thought, would have superior understanding of what needed to be done for the general good of all. The House, meanwhile, would more directly represent the “common” citizens.

While that class distinction has eroded, the dual legislative bodies remain as an internal “check and balance” within the legislative branch of government. Though the process can be cumbersome, all legislation must pass both houses of Congress, insuring that (most of the time) all proposed measures receive very careful and rigorous consideration from a variety of perspectives.

Even after approval by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, however a proposed law, or “bill,” does not become law until it is signed by the president. However, the president, who has been elected to a four-year term by the people, may act on that authority to veto, or block, a bill passed by Congress. But what if the president, after securing office for four years, begins going to extremes with the veto, blocking legislation that reflects the will of a clear and strong majority of the legislative representatives also elected by the people? With a vote by two-thirds of its members, Congress may override the president’s veto, and the bill will become part of the supreme law of the land, despite the president’s opposition.

The president has the authority to appoint high officials in the executive branch, such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, and other members of the Cabinet, as well as judges to the Supreme Court and other courts in the federal judiciary system. However, these appointments must receive confirmation by the Senate, which the Constitution authorizes to give “Advice and Consent” regarding such presidential decisions. Similarly, the president is empowered to work out treaties with foreign powers, but to become binding law, a treaty must be ratified, or confirmed, by the Senate.

Another important and striking example of checks and balances has to do with authority over the nation’s military. The Constitution makes the president commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Military commanders are bound by law and oath of loyalty to obey the president’s orders. Yet the president does not have unchecked authority over the military, for only Congress can declare war. Furthermore, the approval of Congress is needed to appropriate from the federal treasury the funds needed to operate the military forces. The boundary lines between executive and legislative powers when it comes to war and military authority have been and remain much disputed. But the disagreements over how to interpret and apply the designated powers were part of what the architects of the Constitution envisioned, and the process has functioned to, in the long-run, prevent either branch from pushing its role to dangerous extremes.

As an ultimate hedge against a president exploiting the role of commander-in-chief to become a military dictator or otherwise abuse power, Congress may impeach (draw up charges) and then remove from office a president for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” On the other hand, to prevent Congress from using this authority as a tool of political convenience, and easily overturn the results of a presidential election, the Constitution requires a thorough process of deliberation for this solemn step. The House of Representatives must draw up the charges of impeachment. If the impeachment is duly voted by the House, a trial is then conducted in the Senate, with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presiding. Only if two-thirds of the Senate votes for conviction can the president be removed from office. No president in U.S. history has been removed from office in this way. Two (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) have been impeached by the House of Representatives, but in neither case did the Senate vote for conviction. In a third instance, President Richard Nixon very likely would have been impeached and convicted, but he resigned from office before the process could be carried out.

Finally, the judicial branch (Article III), has a particularly crucial and influential role in the system of checks and balances. A bill may be passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president, but if, upon challenge, the Supreme Court rules that the law violates the Constitution – the ultimate standard, the charter of freedom – that law is made void, no longer in effect. The high Court may similarly invalidate an executive order issued by the president if it is deemed in violation of the Constitution.

The judges who sit on the Supreme Court and other federal courts are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Thus, it is only by a thorough process involving the elected agents of the citizenry in both the executive and legislative branches that the judges in the judicial branch are put in place. Once there, however, their term is for life – they remain in office until they die or choose to resign. The purpose of this is to keep the judicial branch as free as possible from the pressures of electoral politics, so that they can render their decisions independent of intimidation from the president or Congress. Here too, though, Congress has the last-resort tool of impeachment for use in extreme cases.

Also, Congress can change, or amend, the Constitution to counteract the Supreme Court’s voiding of a law as unconstitutional. However, the whole point of the Constitution was to be the standard, grounded in the sovereign will of the people, according to which governmental authority should be exercised. Thus, the founders believed dangerous instability would result if the standard could be easily changed. For example, in a climate of fear or anxiety, a slim majority might pass a measure that completely undermines a core principle of the Constitution.

Therefore, the Constitution makes amendment possible, but seeks to insure that such a change is as thoroughly anchored in the considered will of the people as the original Constitution. Thus, an amendment initiated in Congress can only be passed with a two-thirds majority in both houses, not a simple majority. And then another and perhaps higher hurdle remains: the amendment must gain approval by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states, or 38 of the current 50 states.

Your Inalienable Rights

The first Ten Amendments, enacted in 1791 in accordance with promises made during the debates over ratification of the Constitution held in the states, became known collectively as the “Bill of Rights.” These amendments set forth freedoms and protections against tyrannical government that were at the heart of the American revolutionary struggle and formed the core of the new nation’s identity. Accordingly, questions over how to interpret and apply the language of these amendments to the changing circumstances of national life have increasingly become the defining issues in the struggle over the kind of society that will prevail in the United States.

The First Amendment alone guarantees several of the most basic and highly valued rights: the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, and the right to petition the government for change. The Bill of Rights also contains fundamental legal protects such as the rights to trial by jury and due process of law (Sixth Amendment), and against “unreasonable searches and seizures” (Fourth Amendment) and self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment) in criminal cases. The Fifth Amendment also undergirds the right to hold private property, which cannot be appropriated for public use without “just compensation.”

The Second Amendment remains one of the most hotly-contested today. It states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” One of the major concerns of the Anti-Federalists who opposed ratification of the Constitution, especially before a Bill of Rights was promised, was that if the new national government could control possession of firearms, it could easily become just a much a source of tyranny as Great Britain had been. Thus, the importance of the states having armed militias to check temptations to abuse of power by the national government. Ongoing debate rages over the intent of the framers of the Constitution regarding the Second Amendment. Was it primarily to: (a) ensure that the states could maintain a “well regulated Militia”; or (b) guarantee the right to keep arms as an individual right in and of itself, independent of a connection with the state militias? In the case District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled (5-4 vote) in favor of the latter position (b).

Facts About the Framers

In view of such controversy, knowing something about the framers of the Constitution, and their historical circumstances and concerns can help us make intelligence choices about how to apply their document to today’s world. Here are just a few basic facts:

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, principle author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was not at the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, for he was in Paris, serving as ambassador to France. However, Jefferson described those who were there as an “assembly of demigods,” for most of the heroes of the revolutionary struggle were on hand. Towering above them, both physically and symbolically, was George Washington, the venerated commander of the Continental Army in the War for Independence, who was called upon to preside over the convention.

Of the 55 delegates assembled, 44 of them had served either in the Continental Congress that governed during the Revolutionary War or the Congress that served under the Articles of Confederation. A third of the delegates were veterans of the military struggle for independence. Most were wealthy, though some had worked their way up from humble circumstances. All were white males, and most were, at least nominally, Protestants. Only one was Roman Catholic. Not surprisingly, lawyers formed the most heavily represented profession, with 32. Two were college presidents, five planters, eight merchants or traders, and three were physicians. About 25 of them owned slaves. Their average age was 43, with the oldest being the renowned Ben Franklin, 81, and the youngest, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, aged 26.

Two of the younger delegates, Alexander Hamilton of New York, 32, and James Madison of Virginia, 36, were among the most dynamic figures pushing for a new and much stronger foundation for the national government. Madison, the diminutive but indomitable intellectual, rightly deserves the title “father of the Constitution,” for he did more than anyone to conceptualize it and as much as anyone to bring it into being. In preparation for the convention, he dug into history and pored over treatises on republican government and natural law. And he came up with a comprehensive plan, the Virginia Plan, introduced early in the convention, that became the starting point for framing the new constitution, though he would have to surrender some of his most cherished points in the give-and-take of the heated deliberations.

One of the principle issues on which Madison had to compromise was that of representation. Along with increased power to the federal government at the expense of that of the individual states, his Virginia Plan called for each state’s number of representatives in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to be based on population. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state of the 13 states, tiny Rhode Island as much as populous New York, had an equal say in Congress. Under the Virginia Plan, representation in Congress would be based on the population of American citizens, instead of states. Delegates from the smaller states protested that this would mean that their states’ influence in Congress would be completely overwhelmed by the states with larger populations, such Virginia, home to the architect of the new plan.

This dispute only makes sense when we realize that at that time, the newly independent American states thought of themselves sovereign nations, unified by the fight for independence and confederated together for mutual cooperation, but not as sub-entities of that union. To a large extent, people linked their identity primarily with their states, and only secondarily with the United States. This mentality can be seen as late as the Civil War, when the famous General Robert E. Lee fought for the Confederacy against the Union. Even though he opposed both slavery and his state’s decision to secede from the Union to join the Confederacy, he felt honor-bound to fight alongside his fellow countrymen of Virginia against the federal armies invading from the North.

Back to the constitutional convention in 1787, Gov. William Paterson set forth the New Jersey Plan to counter the Virginia Plan. The New Jersey Plan retained equal representation for the states, just as under the Articles of Confederation. It proposed solutions to some of the more glaring weaknesses of the Articles, giving the Congress greater power to tax and conduct foreign relations, but it left the basic structure of the government unchanged.

The New Jersey Plan was voted down, but the Virginia Plan still could not gain general agreement either. As the debate wore on, Alexander Hamilton proceeded to offer an even more centralizing plan, in which the states would virtually become departments of an all-powerful federal government. With his ideas rejected, Hamilton finally gave up on the convention and went home. At the other end of the spectrum, Luther Martin of Maryland, who remained a stalwart of state sovereignty, also returned home to spread the warning that nothing but danger could be expected from the outcome of the Philadelphia convention.

The convention came very close to dissolving entirely in more than one instance. Bound up with the controversy over representation was the equally divisive and volatile issue of slavery. Some delegates, including Hamilton, hoped that slavery would be abolished in the new Republic. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania pled for an end to slavery, calling it a “nefarious institution” that would bring “the curse of Heaven on the states where it was practiced.” Delegates from the Southern states, however, made it clear that if the new constitution outlawed slavery, the Union would have to be formed without them.

Delegates who shared Morris’s sentiments reluctantly concluded that a constitution with concessions to slavery was preferable to no constitution at all. They agreed with Madison, who, said, “Great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.”

Pressure from the Southern states led the framers of the Constitution not only to let slavery alone, but to afford it certain protections. If an escaped slave who succeeded in making it to a free state thereby became free in the eyes of the federal government, the institution would be seriously undermined. Thus, the framers inserted a “fugitive slave” clause: “No person held to service or labour in one state,…[and] escaping to another, shall, in consequence of any law…therein, be discharged from such service, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.”

Furthermore, the compromise with slavery also included a stipulation that no law prohibiting the slave trade – the “migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” – could be made for twenty years after ratification of the Constitution. Here, as with the fugitive slave clause, the framers’ use of indirect language to refer to slaves and slavery, without using those terms, hints at their discomfort, even bad conscience, about the glaring contradiction with their ideals of liberty and equality.

On the other side of the coin, though, the compromise did permit outlawing the external slave trade – the importation slaves from outside the country – after twenty years elapsed. That action was indeed promptly taken in 1808. And that, along with the fact that Congress had already outlawed slavery itself in any new states to be formed in the old “Northwest Territory” (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa), led Abraham Lincoln decades later to argue that the nation’s founders had sought to put slavery on a path toward “ultimate extinction.” As president, he intended to keep it on that path, though he too, at least until the mid-point of the Civil War, was willing to take a gradualist approach.

But even with the compromises on slavery as such being reached, the dispute about representation remained. And the question of whether slaves should be counted in the apportionment of representation in Congress became part of that dispute. The Southern states wanted the slave population fully counted, even though slaves could not vote or play any part in the political process. This would mean the Southern states would have greater representation in Congress. In the view of the Northern states, this would be an unfair advantage – their delegates insisted that if the slaves could not vote, they should not count at all.

The outcome was the infamous “three-fifths” clause, in which the slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation in Congress (this did not mean that they would get 3/5 of a vote either – they remain barred from that entirely). In a sense, the champions of the new Constitution “won ugly,” for the three-fifths clause was an essential part of the “Great Compromise” that broke the impasse at the convention when the delegates re-assembled following a short break for the 4th of July.

The other crucial breakthrough on representation, known as the Connecticut Compromise, was agreement that each state, no matter how large or small in population, would have equal representation in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, however, the principle set forth by Madison was put in place: representation based on population. Thus, today the state of Alaska, with its population totaling close to 700,000, has exactly the same influence in the voice in the Senate (two Senators) as California, whose population of around 37,000,000 is more than 50 times greater. But California has 55 representatives in the House, while Alaska has only one.

The Expansion of Constitutional Rights

Clearly the Constitution was not the embodiment of perfection. It enshrined injustices in painful contrast to the new Republic’s highest ideals. Moreover, some of its provisions ended up inhibiting rather than fostering the successful functioning of a democratic republic.

Thus, the necessity, and genius, of the provision for amendment, summarized above. Despite their limitations, the framers succeeded in establishing firm boundary lines for the American experiment in representative democracy that have served the nation remarkably well for more than two centuries. At the same time, they created a process for change that has helped the nation progress, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward fuller realization of a society in which all enjoy the rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” on an equal basis.

The most important amendments expanding the reach of human rights came in the aftermath of the great Civil War that threatened the Union with dissolution. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, made slavery illegal. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) declared “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including the former slaves, to be as citizens. Furthermore, no state would be allowed to deprive citizens of the rights recognized by the federal Constitution, nor deprive them of “the equal protection of the law.” This amendment has figured very prominently ever since in judicial decisions about application of the Bill of Rights in the federal Constitution to state and local laws.

The Fifteenth Amendment went on to spell out that the right to vote cannot be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude (1870). The Southern states, with the help of the Supreme Court, managed to subvert application of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to black citizens for many decades. But in 1954 the Supreme Court reversed course, and with the civil rights movement leading the way forward, the nation finally moved decisively toward racial equality in realization of constitutional rights.

After the era of Civil War and Reconstruction, the next flurry of amendments came in the Progressive era, during which the nation rallied as rarely before or since around reform measures intended to advance the nation’s journey toward a more humane, just, and democratic social order. Among the important amendments to the federal Constitution, the Seventeenth (1913) gave the people more direct influence over Congress with a shift in how Senators would be elected: instead of being elected by, as they had been until then, by state legislatures, they would now be elected by direct popular vote. The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) finally closed another embarrassing gap between the real and the ideal in the nation’s political life, by guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Another era of even greater upheaval, the 1960s, brought another cluster of amendments extending the promise of democracy, though not so dramatically as the Fourteenth or Nineteenth Amendments did. Residents of the District of Columbia gained the right to vote in presidential elections in 1961 with the Twenty-Third Amendment (though they still lack the right to elect representatives to Congress). And, after sending thousands of 18-20 year-olds to fight and die in a brutal war in Vietnam, the nation lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 with the Twenty-sixth Amendment in 1971.

None of these changes came about automatically, however. It required the intense, selfless commitment of citizens, whose reward for challenging the status quo was often years of persecution, hardship, and sometimes imprisonment and death. Similar dedication remains necessary if the Constitution is to continue as a living guardian of representative democracy and human rights.

To Learn More

Online Resources

Books

  • Bailyn, Bernard.  The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967.
  • Berkin, Carol.  A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution.  Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2002.
  • Bernstein, Richard B., with Jerome Agel. Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996.
  • Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May-September 1787. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.
  • Collier, Christopher.  Decision at Philadelphia.  The Constitutional Convention of 1787. Reissue edition. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
  • Rakove, Jack N. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
  • Rossiter, Clinton. 1787: The Grand Convention. Reissue edition. New York: Norton, 1987.
  • Stewart, David O. The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.  Reissue edition. New York: Norton, 1993.