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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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Clue Less

Sell it somewhere else...

pearl fanch

Aaron, I ususally never agree with you. However, I think you're right on, on this one.
The constitution was written over 200 years ago. I understand that our county was built around this document. However, times have changed over 200 years, and I think a bit of updating is in order.

Ed Jucation

Totally agree with Aaron. Let's start by getting rid of Article 2 Section 1 concerning the Electoral College. The architects of the US political system established the Electoral College process because they did not trust the average voter to understand the issues or know the political leaders of the new nation well enough to make informed choices. Look at the 2000 election results where Bush won because a stacked Supreme Court ended the recount. Al Gore won the popular vote: MORE PEOPLE voted for Gore, yet he lost. This is one reason I have not voted since.

jon paycheck

the condescending tone of this "manifesto" is disgusting....

Aaron Regunberg

Hi jon, sorry--I did not mean to be condescending, and I certainly was not trying to write a manifesto. Just an opinion and the logic behind it.

Dave Barry

Let's use some logic here...the constitution was written by the only people that could have written it in the lae 1700's. Educated men. Most people were uneducated and incapable of producing such a document. To say it represented the 1% is ridiculous. The bill or rights alone is remarkable for its time and remains remarkable. The constitution is designed to protect individuals from government, not groups or classes of people. The framers also realized that the constitution may need to be amended and wrote in the procedure for doing that. You cannot look back with 21st century eyes and revise history. The document is not perfect but it is the best in the world. What amendments would you make? Begin the process that was laid out over 200 years ago.

Zack Mezera

Oh, right Dave, Aaron must have forgotten that there were absolutely no educated women in the 1700s.

Ed Jucation

1. Get rid of 3rd amendments...no longer pertinent

Ed Jucation

didn't let me finish...
2. Get rid of Article II, Section 1 clauses 2,3,4 AND the 12th Amendment. This all pertains to the Electoral College. Make a new Amendment making the popular vote the deciding factor in elections.

Aaron Regunberg

Dave, I think your comment is pretty elitist. Zack's point is well taken--the document would have looked very different in women had been allowed to have a hand in it, which they certainly had the ability (if not the permission) to do. And I know it would have looked different if blacks had been involved, or white men without property. There were definitely educated members of each of these groups--but even that is beside the point, because you don't need to have an official education to be able to say, "Well, let's include something about issue X that matters to me." And that's especially true of the common folks in New England, who had a lot of experience engaging in democratic town councils etc. where everyone had a say in the matters of a local community.

As far as amendments I'd add, I'm a big fan of the "Second Bill of Rights" proposed by FDR in 1944. He argued Americans needed another set of guarantees: the right to employment and a living wage, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies, housing, medical care, education, and social security. I think the last 30 years would have been a lot better for the average American had his vision come true.

Seth Steinman

Interesting article Aaron, but I'd implore you to do more research. You almost plagiarized the entire paragraph on Adams and Hamilton from here: http://vi.uh.edu/pages/buzzmat/htdisconst.html

If you look at Adam's quote in context, and read through his writing, which you can find free on Google Books "The Political Writing of John Adams," it's clear that he did not believe DEMOCRACY to be "the most ignoble, unjust, and detestable form of government" but instead, he was referring to a unicameral legislature- without any checks or balances. In fact, the article which you quote from is titled "a defence of the constitutions," and the next paragraph states "there can be no constitutional liberty, no free state, no right constitution of a commonwealth, where the people are excluded from the government"

Aaron Regunberg

Seth, you make a good point--John Adams and other framers did not want to exclude "the people" from government entirely. But they very much did not want the people to have actual control (which is, in my opinion, the meaning of democracy) either. Right after the "ignoble" quote, he makes clear that the purpose of multiple legislatures is to ensure that the power of the people would be "temper[ed] and control[ed] by the aristocratical part of the community." If that's not an anti-democratic sentiment, I'm not sure what is.

Interestingly, I got the Hamilton/Adams quotes from Zinn's "Voices of a People's History," which I probably should have cited--I think that site got the quotes there too.

Seth Steinman

Thanks for the comment Aaron. Adams is a very complex man who I’m sure has written contradicting passages throughout his life. It probably just comes down to which quote you chose from. Which is why I think it’s unfair to paint such a broad (and demeaning) picture of him.

For example, you write that Adams ‘makes clear that the purpose of multiple legislatures is to ensure that the power of the people would be tempered and controlled by the aristocratical part of the community"

However, I think that Adams sees the danger in giving any one branch of government (whether it be the executive, the judicial, senate, or house of reps) too much power. In fact, in the preceding pages, Adam’s writes “mixed in one assembly, equal laws can never be expected. They will either be made by the numbers [house of reps], to plunder the few who are rich, or by influence [senate], to fleece the many who are poor. Both rich and poor, then, must be made independent, that equal justice may be done, and equal liberty enjoyed by all.”

And that’s the very definition of democracy, no?

Benjamin Algeo

Aaron - I believe Seth is correct in basically suggesting you are cherry-picking words you find supportive of your ideology while ignoring their context.

That aside, I am intriqued by your comment that you support FDR's "Second Bill of Rights." I'm curious how you think those supposed rights would have been implemented from a practical perspective had they actually been included since the beginning of our government? I'm also curious why you would leave off food, isn't that an even more important "right" needed by all?

Chris MacWilliams

We can't stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country. I wonder why??

paul zecchino

FDR, that old red satyr in the wheelchair, was known by his communist braintrust including Harry Dexter White and Harry Hopkins for being stupid and vain, the perfect patsy.

His 'second bill of rights' is a regurgitation of lenin's false promises.

The founding fathers of this nation could read the Bible in Greek and write it out in Latin. They knew 5800 years of man's history, and conceived a near-perfect document to protect innocent citizens from smooth men who speak in slogans and act with bullets.

This is one of the most sickening articles I've read in a long time, simply for its banality of hubris which leads to genocide.

paul zecchino

You can have liberty or you can have equality. If you want both, you'll have neither. This is a lesson most of us learned from our parents even before we began school.

'Medical care' is a right? 'Health care' is a fiction, a cliche create by the left to further its agenda.

How about my 'right' to own a Jensen Interceptor with a Chrysler 440 Hi-Perf, Hooker Headers, Imperial Mufflers, and Weiand lo-rise Intake Manifold?

And it's also my right to free hi-octane AvGas for life for my Jensen, and I want my rights.

I what about my right to an F-16 for home defense and a B-52H for family trips? I want my rights!

And I want my right to eat like a pig and wash it down with gallons of single-malt scotch, and remain rangy, in good shape. That's a reasonable right that this old, stupid, piece of paper called the Constitution denies me.

I want a Constitutional Convention to throw that stupid, icky, old Constitution out and give my my FDR Second Constitution! I want it now!

And I want my right to have ten, no, twenty homes with free electricity, water, and self-stocking dual refrigerators! Now!

Who needs some stupid, dumb, old piece of paper thrown together by white slave owners? It's stupid plus it stinks and denies me my rights.

Our preezy even said it, it's a document of 'restrictive liberties' which confines government, rather than one which lets government do things for me, the way BigGov always 'does things' for us.

Things such as firing squads, Judicial Terrorism, and communist police states.

Paul Vincent Zecchino
Manasota Key, Florida
06 July, 2012

Benjamin Algeo

Thanks Paul, you've succeeded with excellent detail in continuing my point. If we are lucky it might sink in with Aaron...

Aaron Regunberg

Sorry for the long response time. I'm going to respond to Seth, because I'm not entirely sure that Paul, whose equating of rights like the right to be able to work for a living wage to the right to an F-16 etc. does not, is really looking for a reasoned debate.

Seth, I think you're right--Adams was a complex man with democratic and anti-democratic streaks, no one quote can sum him up, and it was putting rhetoric over substance to try to do so in this piece. Having said this, I think it's fair to say that there were significant anti-democratic tendencies in a large number of the framers (for example, it doesn't seem like anyone is arguing the Alexander Hamilton point).

But regardless of this, I think my other, more primary point remains unresponded-to--that the framers were an incredibly unrepresentative group, and that it makes sense that the document they produced would probably be based more closely around their united class (and gender and race etc.) interests. I just found this run-down of the framers' backgrounds, if anyone is interested: http://www.flagarts.com/faculty-staff/Jennifer Spensieri/documents/WhoWrotetheConstitution.pdf

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