It occurs to me that most people (including me) don’t really know what is in the constitution and what isn’t. So, I took the opportunity of our independence to review its content and reflect.
I thought about writing this the other day when I got in a discussion with a friend about what is or is not in the Constitution. I spoke out quite adamantly that there is nothing regarding god, religion, morals in it except the assurance that the government wouldn’t be involved in such things. The discussion arose over whether or not we should have an amendment that specifies the definition of marriage (a good, raucus, fun, heated discussion/argument ensued [[:-)]]).
Upon reflection, I realized that I really didn’t **know** what was in the document. Oh sure, I know the first amendment and such, but what of the rest of the document?
I went to:
to read it through. After reading it, I marvel at the brevity and simplicity of it. Below is a brief description of each part and my thoughts on it.
Before I start, however, I’d like to make an observation about the overall content. I found it very interesting that every item is either a limitation put on government or a freedom guaranteed to the people. The lone exception that I could find is the 18th amendment which brought in the era of the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. But even with this, we eventually repealed this amendment with the passage of the 21st amendment. We, as a country realized that anything which denies rights to people does not belong in our Constitution.
The Constitution begins: ***WE THE PEOPLE***
Not “we the aristocracy”.
Not “We the divinely chosen”.
Not “We the landholders”.
But “We the people”. Quoting from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this is going to be a government by the people, for the people, and of the people. What a revolutionary concept!!! At the time this was written, the governments around the world were all monarchies, theocracies, or dictatorships in some form or other. The people that wrote these words were the aristoctrats of the society, and they were writing themselves out of power by ensuring that they would not have hereditary rights to such power. This is why the founding fathers were among the greatest men in history. The voluntarily gave up future power for the sake of posterity.
The preamble goes on to describe a government that will be founded on the principles of justice, liberty, national defense, and the good of the people. Notice here the conspicuous absense of anything resembling divine right or destiny, or the support of god for the founding of the country. The supreme power lies in the people.
##Article I: Legislative
This describes the structure, responsibilities and purpose of the legislative branch (i.e. the law **making** branch) of the government.
There is to be two houses, one with representives based on population (the House of Representatives) with representatives elected every 2 years, and one based per state (the Senate) with 2 senators per state elected every 6 years with rotating elections held every 2 years.
Both houses must approve anything that is to be considered to be made a law (presidential approval is also necessary).
The two houses were put in place to ensure that two competing interests would be protected: the rights of sparcely populated states, and the rights of densly populated states. The Senate with equal representation for every state ensures that small states are represented equally with large states, and the house ensure that larger states have a larger voice. By requiring approval in both houses, both interests are protected.
The rest of the Article goes on to describe what kinds of laws are allowed to be written in the Legislative branch and, more importantly, what kind are not allowed to be written. The important thing to notice here is the built in limitation on what kind of laws are allowed. For instance, congress cannot pass a law suspending **habeus corpus** unless we are in time of war.
Another very important feature of the article is that **congress does not enforce or judge its own laws**, but rather these responsibilities are part of the executive and judicial branches.
##Article II: Executive
This article describes how the President is elected and what his responsibilities are.
The President is the commander in chief of the armed forces, can make treaties (but not ratify them… that’s the responsibility of the legislative branch), and can be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
##Article III: Judicial
The Judicial branch has the responsibility of deciding whether or not laws proposed by the legislative branch and approved by the executive branch **fall within the confines of the Constitution**.
##Article IV: Statehood
This article describes what it means to be a state in the United States, how a territory becomes a state, and that all laws of the United States apply to all states within.
Among the requirements of the states are a republican form of government. Also, provisions are made for the extradition of people from one state to another when the laws of one state are broken.
##Article V: Amendments
This is one of the brilliant pieces of this document. The document is written **knowing that it is incomplete and that it must be allowed to change over time**. That is, the founding fathers knew that they were not perfect and that situations would arise in which this document would need to be modified. The amazing thing is that it has only been modified 27 times (10 in the Bill of Rights, and one to undo another), which really means that it has only been modified 15 times in 230+ years!!!
##Article VI: Grandfathering of debt and Oaths of Office
This is a very interesting article. In maintains that any debt incurred by, or any treaty made by the United States will be held as continued after the Constitution is adopted.
But, more interesting is the oath that must be taken by any elected official in federal elections:
Clause 3: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
**no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States*’! The wording of this is critical. ”’No Test… EVER”’. Again. we have a secular, civic form of government that ‘*never** requires any particular religious ideology to serve.
##Article VII: Ratification
This describes how adoption of 9 of the 13 colonies of this Constitution is enough for radification of the entire country.
###Bill of Rights
Among the amendments, the first 10 hold a special title of **The Bill of Rights*’. They were adopted at the same time as the rest of the Constitution, and are called the Bill of Rights because they describe the rights of the people that can ‘*never** be taken away by the government.
- **Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.**
The first five words are among the most beautiful in the entire Constitution. there is no ambiguity.
- 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.
- No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
- The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
- No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
- In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
- In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
- Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
- The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
- The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Can you believe it? That’s the whole thing! The principle that weaves its way through the fabric of this entire document is that of liberty. The rights of the people are paramount and the government exists in support of those rights.