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Aaron Regunberg: It’s Okay to Question Our Constitution

Friday, July 06, 2012


Anyone who either watched TV or listened to the radio during the lead-up to the Fourth of July probably heard quite an earful about the United States Constitution. That makes sense to me—Independence Day is a good time to celebrate the value of our government’s blueprint. But what I have a harder time understanding is the hyperbolic content of almost all of this supposedly patriotic punditry. I can’t even count the number of times during the last week that I have heard smart, normally critically-thinking adults say, for example, that the Constitution is literally “the perfect document.”

Now, to be clear—I am all for appreciating the U.S. Constitution. It’s an innovative text that was ahead of its time, and in some ways it’s been very helpful to the American project. But it is manifestly not a “perfect document” (as if there are or there ever could be any perfect documents). And to continue to promote the myth that it is can only be damaging to our nation’s ongoing attempts to improve itself, to come closer in reality to our ubiquitous rhetoric of freedom and equality.

To question this talk of perfection, one need only look back to the framing of the constitution to see major birth defects. First and foremost is the makeup of the 55 men who came together in Philadelphia todo the framing; even the most cursory study shows the group to have been highly unrepresentative. Nearly all of the framers were men of great wealth, either in the form of enslaved humans, land, shipping or manufacturing. And notably absent from the framing process were four groups that together made up the vast majority of the nation’s population at the time—slaves, indentured servants, women, and men without property (to say nothing of American Indians). It’s hard to imagine the possibility that such a an elite group could have written a constitution that did not benefit the elite economic interests they understood and felt through their own personal experience more than those of these other populations. I don’t believe they could have produced a fair document even if they had sincerely wanted to (and it can be assumed that most of the framers did not want to, considering their interests were often directly opposed to those of their slaves, indentured servants, workers, debtors, etc.).

We also know, from their writings and correspondence, that many of the most influential framers were generally opposed to the democratic ideal of “by the people, for the people.” John Adams wrote that the United States should be governed by “the rich, the well-born, and the able,” and described democracy as “the most ignoble, unjust, and detestable form of government.” Alexander Hamilton (one of the strongest proponents for ratification) argued that society was divided between the “rich and well born” and “the people,” and that the latter were “turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” The answer, according to Hamilton, was to give “to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government” (and this was before Citizens United came along).

I will not go so far as to say the U.S. Constitution is by, for, and of the 1%, because I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there for all Americans. But it is unquestionably by the 1% (again, that’s just an historical fact that can be ascertained by studying the backgrounds of the framers), and I think many aspects of the document reflect this. Put yourself in their shoes—if you were a member of the 1% and you were given free rein to write the blueprint for the U.S. government, what would you do? Well, you’d probably design it to be as status quo-affirming as possible, since the status quo was working pretty well for you. You’d probably make it exceedingly difficult to pass major legislation, saying that all changes have to go through the House, the Senate, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. You’d probably make it as unfeasible as possible for the government to interfere with private property, as most of the private property belongs to you. And you’d probably want to ensure it would be nearly impossible to change the constitution after you’d written it (nowadays folks often point to the “flexibility” of the amendment process as the great genius of the U.S. Constitution, but in reality our constitution is one of the least flexible of any in the world; it’s so hard to reform that it’s only been changed 17 times over the course of 223 years).

That’s exactly the document that was written by those 55 wealthy white men, and I think it’s worthwhile for us—every once in a while, at least—to keep this in mind. Americans’ faith in our institutions, including Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidency, are at record lows, yet we never make any connection between all of the problems we see in the way our government works and the blueprint that directs that government. Our constitution has an immense amount of value, but it also has some very significant flaws, and every time we say stupid things like that it’s perfect, we make it harder for us to size it up accurately and respond accordingly. We make it harder for our society to be critical, to ask questions. We begin to fossilize, and that, to me, is the antithesis of what it means to be an American.


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