Assortments of Thought

The Constitutional Way

Posted on: February 19th, 2012

Of all the world’s documents concerning liberties and freedom, perhaps none remain as celebrated as the U.S. Constitution. By establishing a government of checked and limited power, it enabled a society of liberty, a society unlike any the world had ever seen. Hence it’s gone on to mark the greatest turning point in political approaches and realities of all time, and has truly provided the inspiration and model for countless other, similar documents for governments around the world. Nevertheless, many people admire and look to it primarily for the support of rights, when in fact granting rights is something the Constitution basically doesn’t do. While it does cover some very fundamental ones like freedom of speech, even those are so simply stated that they require laws by Congress and occasional Supreme Court interpretation to be effectively applied. Further, many of the rights so integral to contemporary American society are nowhere to be found in the Constitution, because it guarantees little to nothing, for instance, about labor regulations, civil rights, or decent treatment for non-citizen groups. Nor is it practical that it even could guarantee many rights, for in writing such a document, no one could ever have the vision to foresee the situations of the future, or the understanding to specify the precise rights of everyone throughout all of society. Instead though, the Constitution does something far more achievable, and yet altogether more remarkable: it establishes a system in which injustices can be witnessed, recognized, and protected against by law, as the political advancements since its implementation have shown. That’s not as ideal as a perfect society, of course, in which everyone is treated fairly from the beginning and forever, and no one knows what the far future may hold. In lieu of the impossible document that could create such perfection though, the Constitution remains a truly brilliant, original document of freedom, and hence worthy of all the reverence that so many people hold for it.

Contrary to common conception then, the Constitution actually doesn’t specify many rights. Granted, the amendments in particular guarantee such things as freedoms of speech, religion, and protest; fair trials by jury without self-incrimination; and voting rights for women, blacks, all other races, and, indeed, all those eighteen or older; among other protections. And indeed, many of these amendments and their prescribed rights continue to be important sources for Supreme Court decisions–decisions which have often set new protective laws–and so they understandably remain not only cherished, but also very important. Even so though, the Constitution states such rights so simply that, without supporting legislation by Congress or interpretation by the Court, they seldom specify all the details or cover loopholes, while the Constitution otherwise leaves out many, many other rights that are equally fundamental to contemporary American society. For instance, the First Amendment (available at the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University’s website, among countless other places) protects freedoms of speech, religion, and protest, yet in its broadness, it doesn’t consider the use of obscene or hateful language in any and all circumstances; the practice of religious rites that harm others; or protesting to the point of rioting, injuring, or killing. Instead, all these possibilities and the typically sensible regulations that cover them have had to be set by law, specifying what the Amendment doesn’t even come close to covering. Similarly, the Fifteenth Amendment guarantees blacks and all other racial groups the right to vote, yet it states this right so simply that Southern whites easily and legally continued denying Southern blacks the vote via fees, literacy tests, and other such voting “requirements” for nearly a hundred years, until the Voting Rights Act finally ensured protection by covering the loopholes the Amendment leaves. Further, the Constitution doesn’t even say anything at all, for instance, about work week length, minimum wages, or other labor and financial protections; education, welfare, or other such social items; decent treatment for visitors, immigrants, illegal immigrants, enemy combatants, and other non-citizen groups; or, indeed, even about about prohibiting the unjust treatment of people over their gender, race, or other such personal characteristics (save for the rather broad equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment), be it at school, work, or society at large. Instead, such important rights have had to be established through numerous laws over the past century in particular, and have thus provided many cornerstones to contemporary American society that the Constitution simply doesn’t provide. Hence while the Constitution does offer a few fundamental statements important for law and the Court’s assessment of laws, it simply isn’t a document that grants many rights, either in number, nor in specifics.

It isn’t surprising though that the Constitution doesn’t offer a multitude of rights, because it isn’t even practical that it could. Indeed, unless a document were to be periodically and significantly revised, it could never cover general changes in attitude or new institutional developments, and given the impossibility of determining and assigning every single person and group their unquestionable rights, nor could any document ever cover every single right at all. For instance, at the time the Constitution was written, it was largely unthinkable among the politically-empowered to grant equality to non-white, non-males, so naturally the Constitution doesn’t do so. (Although it’s pretty remarkable that aside from a few measures to protect slavery, the Constitution actually doesn’t enshrine discrimination; it lists nothing about race or gender as requirements for voting or holding political office, for example, in spite of the discriminatory measures that have historically been taken with these issues.) Likewise, when the Constitution was written, the world was very different, lacking all the big business and technology that exists today, so naturally the Constitution couldn’t address any issues that arise from such things, from piracy and privacy concerns regarding media, to personal security concerns regarding business and finance. And, even if unforeseen institutional changes weren’t inevitable, while some rights seem so natural that few people question their validity, many others aren’t so universally agreed upon, such as those concerning equal treatment for historically-supressed groups; business regulations meant to protect consumers or the environment; or restrictions on behavior meant to enforce “social morality”–for the good of everyone, as some would have it. Finally, although it’s true that the Constitution allows for and has been amended some over the years to further certain rights, making it too easy to change would’ve rendered the government’s foundational document unstable, and hence calling for periodic and significant revisions to update a plethora of Constitutional rights probably wouldn’t have worked either. In sum then, aside from the fact that the Constitution doesn’t grant many rights, indeed, it isn’t even practical that it could’ve.

There’s something far more achievable than rights-granting though that, altogether more remarkably, the Constitution has readily done: by creating a stable, free society, it’s enabled one in which injustices can be seen and fought, and where rights can then be formally acknowledged and protected by law. Indeed, although forms of democracy had been known since ancient times, prior to the writing of the Constitution, it seems that no one had quite made it work, for successfully sharing effective power among ordinary citizens was a tricky proposition to implement (assuming anyone wanted to share their power in such a way to begin with). Yet a stable, free society in which people can pursue life, liberty, and happiness–even if initially not everyone–is the best known hope there is for building a society of universal rights and respect, for then people can come to learn how others should be treated, and see to it that other people’s rights are protected. Hence where the Constitution spends the bulk of its words prescribing the seemingly mundane procedures for structuring and running the government, it’s actually done something extraordinary, as did its authors in creating it. By so carefully decentralizing power from the executive; partitioning select aspects of it between the executive, legislative, and judicial; and yet reserving so much to the people, including the powers to think freely, seek better ways, and elect to “official” power all those within the branches; it’s truly made possible all the social advances of the past couple hundred years, and all those over the past century in particular. Hence people living in the Reconstruction era finally abolished slavery; people in the New Deal era originated various labor protections and financial regulations; those in the sixties finally began acknowledging women and blacks’ rightful status as equals, as well as developing many social programs; and many over the past century have even had the US take part in numerous international conventions to ban such things as torture of war combatants and employment of biogenic weapons, and allow such things as unrestricted immigration for refugees. All of these things have progressed as far as they’ve been fought for, of course, along with many other, smaller advances, as well as other necessary but not necessarily as noteworthy of changes: all the little things that just keep the increasing complexities running. Most remarkable of all this though, has been how historically ill-treated and politically-excluded groups have nonetheless been gradually gaining their rightful recognition as equals. Any political system that can enable that is, indeed, a truly amazing one. Hence in spite of not granting a plethora of rights, the Constitution truly does something altogether more remarkable: it enables a society where rights are eventually recognized and protected, and one that’ll probably just keep getting better for decades, if not for centuries to come.

Thus the Constitution truly deserves all the reverence that so many people give to it, for it’s sustained a free society in which injustices are eventually recognized, and rights are finally protected. Indeed, there’re only a couple of obvious criticisms that can be made of the Constitutional way: that perhaps it’s too slow to support positive advancements, or that it doesn’t truly foster them at all, that it only allows them; and that in the name of advancing protections, the government’s ever-expanded power may one day go too far, and thus destroy freedom itself. That said, it’s certainly sad to think of the decades upon decades in which groups such as women and blacks were treated so unjustly, in which a courageous few had to fight so hard to bring about reform that still isn’t politically or socially complete, even to this day. It’s also true that contemporary American society is still rife with problems, as can be seen from the arguments about gay rights; universal healthcare; immigration reform; unemployment, poverty, and homelessness; illegal drug use; animal rights; and abortion; among countless other important, yet often less popular topics. Naturally, people on both sides of such issues claim that they’re supporting rights and protections, even though the rights they envision conflict, else there wouldn’t be any controversy. As already stated though, no person, government, or document can prescribe everyone’s proper rights, so creating a society that at least enables the progression of rights and protections is a truly monumental achievement. Certainly, other recent attempts to solve everyone’s problems through government, such as communism–which in particular aims to eradicate economic injustices–have failed miserably, precisely because they strayed too far from capitalism and democracy. It’s also unfortunately true that no political or economic system can change human nature, but can only deal with it, and while balancing interests and power to prevent takeovers has certainly been shown to be possible, forcing people to empathize with and seek the best possible treatment for their fellow people is, perhaps, a bit too much for any system to do.

Finally, the Constitution has seemingly permitted the great expansion of the government over the past century or so, and indeed, although it’s typically been done in the name of advancing protections, it’s also possible that it may one day go so far as to infringe on everyone’s liberties, in which case freedom itself will be lost. After all, despite the adoption of the Constitutional way in both America and in countless other free countries around the world, it’s still a little experimental, so no one can know how it might end up, regarding ever-expanding governmental power in particular. Still, it’s only brought many social advances to this point, while the system itself has witnessed many great advances even before that, and, any problems of the future will stand for the next generation of great political thinkers to figure out. For now and the foreseeable future, the Constitutional way has provided the best moments in American history and society, and so much so that the current era is probably the start of its golden age. No matter what the far future may hold then, the Constitution will always be remembered as the greatest, most ingenious document of freedom ever written, and so worthy of much reverence for all time.


The Framers: “The Constitution of the United States,” Sept. 17th, 1787, at the website of the Legal Information Institute of Cornell University as of Feb. 19th, 2012

©2012, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.


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