On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, held in the summer heat of Philadelphia for four long months, signed the document for which they had labored so hard to produce. During both the drafting of the Constitution and the ensuing debates over its ratification, the struggle to procure the new system of government was not an easy one. But in the end, America came down in support of what has endured as the oldest working constitution in the world today.
Thus the U.S. Constitution has a long history behind it—it is part of our American tradition, and we should be proud of it. But we should not respect the Constitution simply because it is tradition. There are, after all, bad traditions. Rather, as American citizens we have a duty to understand the Constitution as fully as possible—which means understanding the principles upon which it was built.
Today there are two competing schools of interpreting the meaning of the Constitution.
There are those who say the Constitution is a “living document,” and that what is good about the Constitution is that it is infinitely malleable, allowing itself to change as circumstances require. This interpretation was described most succinctly by the late Supreme Court Justice William Brennan: “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”
This interpretation has been the constitutional vehicle by which most of the social and welfare programs, as well as affirmative action and other “group rights” measures, have been implemented.
The problem with this understanding, in addition to the fact it is untrue, is that it means, ultimately, the Constitution has no meaning. Or rather, it means whatever we want it to mean. But then, why should anyone be bound by someone else’s understanding of the Constitution, be that someone else a judge, a Congress, or a President?
In opposition to the idea of an “evolving Constitution,” and the derivative expansions of governmental power, some legal scholars and politicians have advanced the need for a jurisprudence of “original intent.” The argument is that until we consciously change (or abolish) it through the amendment procedure, we are bound by the intentions of those who wrote and ratified the Constitution—we cannot make of the Constitution anything we please.
But this argument immediately raises the question: What were the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution? Here, most proponents of “original intent” have not a clue. Our current Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, for example, has written that the liberty and rights of individual human beings have no “intrinsic worth.” And Justice Scalia said in a 1997 speech that under the Constitution, minorities have rights “only because the majority determines that there are certain minority positions that deserve protection,” implying that if the majority so chooses, the minorities forfeit any or all their protections. This is to assert no more than might as the measure of right. Whatever can be said of such arguments, they certainly bear no resemblance to the arguments made by the Framers of the Constitution.
The Constitution was based on the idea of an unchanging human nature. That idea is best captured in the Declaration of Independence, and its statement that all human beings possess equal rights by nature. The idea of equal natural rights is not only the ground for government by consent, but also sets the limit for what that government may rightfully do. If rights precede the formation of government, the primary goal of government is to secure those rights. It cannot grant them, nor can it violate them. To achieve this, government must protect individuals equally under the law.
Speaking of the Declaration’s statement of human equality, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, fitly spoken which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.”
The fact that slavery was offered protection under the Constitution meant that the Constitution—and more generally the American Revolution—was incomplete. But it was the principles of the Declaration, enshrined in the Constitution, that made the elimination of slavery a moral and political necessity. In fact, only by understanding the Constitution in light of the moral truths expounded in the Declaration can we distinguish the principles of the Constitution from its compromises.
The self-evident truth of human equality, and its corollary principle of individual natural rights, is the basis in nature for the reasonableness and goodness of the Constitution. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, the Constitution serves justice by its “inflexible and uniform adherence to the rights of…individuals.” It is an unchanging moral truth, then, that infuses a political document like the Constitution with goodness, and makes the Constitution deserving of our respect and reverence.