Personalizing the Constitution

Together, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution form what Gunnar Myrdal called, the “American Creed.”  The Declaration, written in eloquent, glittering generalities, invokes the Deity and inalienable rights, speaks of self-evident truths and asserts the right of revolution in the event that government grows tyrannical.  It reflects passion, drama, hope and certitude. It speaks of majestic ends, which Abraham Lincoln characterized as the “sheet anchor of the republic.” It is relevant, personal and present. No wonder the masses gravitate to its trumpet call. The Declaration is warm and emotionally available.

       If, for Americans, the Declaration of Independence is poetry, the Constitution is prose. The Declaration supplies the ends, the Constitution the means. But let’s be fair to the Constitution, which, while it lacks the elegant expressions and grand language that shape the Declaration, is not without its own glory, creation story and unique standing in the history of the world.

    The Constitution is also relevant, present and personal. It is the nation’s governing document, indeed, the law of the land, but it is not remote. In fact, its limitations on governmental power are real, reassuring and protective in nature. Its declaration of rights, liberties and freedoms asserts the nobility, integrity and dignity of the American people. The relevance of the Constitution to every generation is self-evident, glimpsed in the availability of the Amendatory Clause, which may be utilized to render the Constitution more adequate to changing circumstances and needs of the times. In fact, the Constitution has been amended 27 times by the citizenry across a vista of two centuries for the purpose of expanding the rights and liberties of more Americans as views and values about inclusion have evolved over time.

      The Preamble to the Constitution waded hip-deep into the centuries-old debate about the purpose of government and boldly declared the American perspective, grounded in the radical, democratic idea that “We the People” through ratification, “ do ordain and establish this Constitution.” That lofty statement, alone, deserves a salute, for it represents the culmination of a historic effort, launched by dissenters in 17th Century England, to place the ultimate legal and political authority of a nation in the hands of the sovereign people.

      Approval of the Constitution by the citizenry, the fulfillment of the Declaration’s assertion of the right of the people to consent to governmental authority, made it personal. The Constitution had not been imposed or forced upon the nation; rather, it reflected choices made by the people themselves. No other nation in the history of the world could lay claim to such a unique status.

      The Constitution is relevant to the lives of the American people, often on a daily basis.  Consider, for example, that because of the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, the government in the United States cannot tell us what to think or believe about politics, religion, art, science or literature.  This libertarian philosophy was beautifully captured by Justice Robesrt H. Jackson in his landmark opinion in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), in which the Supreme  Court struck down a compulsory flag salute statute. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,” Jackson wrote, “it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act there faith therein.”

     The “personalized” Constitution protects the right of Americans to exercise freedom of religion, if they choose to do so, the right of the press to inform the citizenry through the Free Press Clause, the right to keep and bear arms through the 2nd Amendment and protection against “unreasonable” search and seizure by virtue of the 4th Amendment.

     The “personalized” Constitution, moreover, protects the right to privacy and  birth control on the basis of the 9th and 14th Amendments, the protection of  private property through the 5th and 14th Amendments, the guarantee of equal protection of the law as a consequence of the 14th Amendment and, on the basis of the 6th Amendment, the critical right to counsel, a speedy and public trial and the right to an impartial jury.

    Many parts of the “personalized” Constitution still command our loyalties, respect and even affection. As much as anything else, this personal Constitution invites us to think critically about its adequacy, for we are free to amend it when desirable.