The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document. Ratified in 1787, it is reportedly the oldest national constitution in the world still in use. Perhaps many of you, as I did in my school days, memorized the praiseworthy Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In the past two years, some political and religious conservatives have charged the President with not following or of disregarding the Constitution. Such criticism is stronger and more persistent than it has ever been—at least during my lifetime, and I was born when FDR was President.
Those who criticize the President so strongly place great emphasis on the “original intent” of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Last year Rush Limbaugh referred to the Constitution as “a gift of God,” and he was given the “Defender of the Constitution Award” at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2009.
But it seems that the position of Limbaugh and others is close to constitutionolatry, that is, making an idol out of the Constitution. (I thought I was coining a new word, but then I found on the Internet that the term has been used before, although not often.) And those who extol the Constitution so highly are usually referring to the original, 1787 document.
Within two years, though, the original Constitution was found to be insufficient, so the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) were proposed and then ratified in 1791. Still, there were some glaring deficiencies. For example, slavery was nowhere prohibited. It was only after the Civil War that slavery was outlawed by the thirteenth amendment, and then African-American men were given the right to vote with the fifteenth amendment in 1870. But still for decades women, white or black, did not have the right to vote.
My grandmother Laura (Neiger) Seat turned 21 (the legal voting age then) in 1902, but because she was a woman she did not have the right to vote in 1904, the year Theodore Roosevelt was re-elected President. My grandmother Laura (Hamilton) Cousins turned 21 in 1914, the year my mother was born, but she wasn’t allowed to vote in 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson was re-elected President, for the same reason: women did not yet have the constitutional right to vote. That situation did not change until the nineteenth amendment was finally ratified in 1920.
So, in praising the Constitution of 1787, let’s beware of constitutionolatry. Even though it was remarkable, there were, indeed, flaws in that beloved old document. And for this and other reasons we also need to beware of the “Tea Partiers” and other “Originalists” who idolize the Constitution and say they want back the policies of the Founding Fathers. (If you would like to read more about this matter, here is a link to an interesting article posted on the Internet yesterday.)