An acquaintance recently wrote on Facebook, “The independent states were originally united by the U.S. Constitution, which has been systematically dismantled,”
I inquired “What’s been dismantled?”
He wrote back, “The Constitution, as drafted by the authors, via erroneous interpretation.”
I retorted that the founding fathers couldn’t have visualized today’s modern world, and therefore a document written hundreds of years ago, would have to be open to interpretation to be relevant to today’s technologies, issues, and human needs. The U.S. Constitution is essentially a framework.
He wrote back a missive of gibberish and nonsense citing the Revolutionary War, Lexington and Concord (Civil War), Nazi Germany, and Russia, and how “the Constitution was drafted by geniuses so the county could be run by idiots if they just stick to the script.” It was obvious that he was simply repeating what he’d heard from a conservative pundit or pseudo constitutionalist.
To be honest, prior to our exchange, I barely knew anything about the U.S. Constitution, let alone why there seems to be a perpetual controversy surrounding its meaning.
I went online to do some investigating (and learning).
In 1787, there were approximately 4 million people living in the original 13 American colonies. They were governed under the Articles of Confederation, which lacked the mechanisms to fund the federal government through taxation, and likewise persuade delinquent states to pay their share of expenses, like the Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783). In addition, the Articles didn’t provide a means to adjudicate issues between the states, such as boundaries and tolls on road that crossed multiple states.
Originally conceived to revise the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention took place from May 25 to September 17, 1787. Because travel in colonial times was challenging, it took several months before representatives from twelve states arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, establishing a quorum. Seventy-four delegates were invited, but only 55 attended, with 39 eventually signed the Constitution. It took nearly three years for all thirteen states to ratify.
The writing of the U.S. Constitution wasn’t a slam-dunk. It was a compromise between several mindsets with disputes and debates centered on how “proportional representation” would be defined. The final wording in Section 2, third paragraph of the U.S. Constitution is ”Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
While slavery no longer exists in America, making those living in the United States, “free,” if you were to literally apply what’s written in the U.S. Constitution then Native Americas who don’t pay any taxes aren’t counted when determining the number of representatives per state. In 2015, the Tax Policy Center estimated the percentage of households who don’t pay federal income taxed to be 45.3%. If Native America’s mirror this statistic, does that mean that 45% of them don’t count?
And what about the “three fifths of all other Persons” statement? Does that consist of people with green cards? Illegal immigrants? U.S. citizen who live outside the country?
Section 2, paragraph three of the U.S. Constitution further states, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to choose three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.
If the U.S. Constitution names only thirteen states, is it also relevant to the other 39, plus a couple of territories like Puerto Rico? After all, the “number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand,” which today is the size of small American town, not a huge metropolitan area like Los Angeles with over 4.03 million people.
The point being, the U.S. Constitution must be interpreted in context to today’s world. To bounce up-and-down saying politicians and pundits are straying away from the tenants of the Constitution is preposterous because a document written over two hundred years ago can’t possibly be rigidly followed unless you abandoned progress. It’s like treating cancer by applying leeches.
Sections 3 through 6 of the Constitution spells out the election, responsibilities, behavior, and compensation of members of the Senate, House of Representatives, and President. Section 7 discusses the creation and passage of bills.
Section 8, from a viability point-on-view is one of the most important once because it states, “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.” It continues, defining how monies can be used including for posts offices, roads, support armies and militia, borrowing on credit, commerce with “foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” progress of science and useful arts, and much more.
Section 9 deals with migration and “importation” of “Persons,” along with the authority to apply a “Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” Read that again. Once again, if the Constitution were to be followed by the law, and not interpreted, it sounds like people can be imported for just $10 per head.
This section also prohibited states from levying taxes and duties on exported articles, granting titles of nobility, and privileges of the Writ of Habeas Corpus (bring a person before a court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful).
The remainder of the Constitution continues in a similar manner, detailing the design, checks and balances, and responsibility of the government and its officials – as envisions by the representatives of the Constitution Congress in 1787.
Bill of Rights: The other half of the Constitution
One of the more contentious debates surrounding the writing of the Constitution was how slaves or other property was defined. After being drafted, this issue bubbled to the top when the states were asked to ratify the document. States and critics argued the Constitution lacked a bill of rights, which protected citizens’ rights.
Two states – North Carolina and Rhode Island – refused to ratify until the Bill of Rights was proposed in Congress in 1789. Even so, Rhode Island only ratified, by two votes, when threated with the possibly of being treated as a foreign government.
The Bill of Rights consists of ten amendments. As you read them, consider which ones are being “systematically dismantled.”
Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Amendment VII: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Were the Signers of the Constitution Geniuses
James Madison, who became the fourth President of the United States, is considered the “Father of the Constitution” for his pivotal role in drafting and promoting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was born into privilege, the oldest of 12 children, to a Virginia tobacco planter and the daughter of tobacco planter. The Madison family was the largest landowners in the area with hundreds of slaves on a Montpelier, VA plantation.
Madison had private tutors, and attended the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University. He studied and mastered a breadth of subject, becoming a Virginia State Legislator 1776, where he initially met Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson later sent Madison crates of books from France on various forms of government. These learnings were central in Madison’s viewpoints when drafting the Constitution, and driving compromise and consensus.
One delegate wrote, he’s “the best informed Man of any point in debate.” Madison wasn’t just wise, but understood human foibles, writing “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
The first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was the consummate statesman, leading the Annapolis Convention, playing a pivot role in composing the Constitution, writing 41 of the 85 installations of The Federalist Papers, and adjudicating in many federal issues. He was also born out of wedlock in Charlestown, British West Indies to a mother whose ancestry was African, British, and French. His father was from Scotland.
In 1804, Aaron Burr was defeated as the governor of New York. He felt that Hamilton’s support of his opponent, Morgan Lewis, and the contents in a letter written by Hamilton, attacked his honor. While attempts were made to reconcile their differences, a duel was arranged between the two men. Hamilton, feeling obliged to his family, and wanting to continue playing a role in politics, resolved to throw his fire, meaning to abort a conflict by allowing one’s opponent to fire first. It’s unknown whether Hamilton fired after being struck by Burr’s bullet or if they fire simultaneously, but the shot to Hamilton was fatal.
It’s easy to assume all of the signers of the Constitution were outstanding individuals, however, like modern-day politicians they had their flaws or at least, a tendency to resolve conflicts through gun fire.
Richard Dobbs Spaight signed the Constitution when he was only 29 years, having previously been a delegate to the Confederation Congress and served in the North Carolina House of Commons. When he was 44, like Alexander Hamilton, he was died from injuries sustained in a duel.
A member of the North Carolina delegation at the Constitutional Convention, William Blount and his brothers gradually acquired 2.5 millions of acres in Tennessee and the trans-Appalachian west, which left him deeply in debt. He then hatched a scheme to increase the value of his lands by working with Great British to seize Spanish-controlled Louisiana and Florida, and then give American merchants free access to New Orleans, and the Mississippi River. When his duplicity was discovered, he was expelled from the Senate, and become the first U.S. public official to face impeachment.
Timothy Pickering, who was also a signer of the U.S. Constitution, and involved in impeaching William Blount, served as Secretary of State under Presidents George Washington and John Adam, and was also a Massachusetts Senator.
In 1810, he challenged Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act by holding several conferences with special British envoy George Rose in hope of creating a pro-British party in New England. Passed in 1807, the Embargo Act supporting U.S. neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars, and imposed embargos on Great Britain and France. At the time, the British Royal Navy was forcing thousands of American seaman to serve on their war ships.
Pickering’s insolence in wanting to form a party sympathetic to Britain was in violation of the Logan Act, which forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments who conflicted with U.S. interests. In addition, Pickering read confidential documents in open Senate sessions before an injunction of secrecy had been removed. By a majority vote of 20-7, Pickering was censured by the Senate on January 2, 1811.
Born in County Carlow, Ireland, and one of the largest slaveholders in the United States, Pierce Butler represented South Carolina when he signed the Constitution. Recognizing human dignity, he introduced the Fugitive Slave Clause to the Constitution. Throughout his life, he lobbied for better treatment of slaves, but continued to support the institution because of its importance to the southern economy.
Considered “eccentric” and an “enigma,” he summarized his view of government as “Our System is little better than [a] matter of Experiment…. much must depend on the morals and manners of the people at large.”
The Constitution has withheld the test of time. But it’s important to keep in mind, it was created through compromise with aspects of the final version drawn from five different points-of-view, the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, Hamilton Plan, Pinckney Plan, and Connecticut Compromise. There was heated discussions and modifications that continued for several months with some of the signers reluctantly adding their signatures, and sixteen refusing to sign.
More than half of the delegates were trained as lawyers with others being merchants, manufacturers, shippers, land speculators, bankers or financiers, physicians, a minister, and several small farmers. Twenty-five owned slaves.
Once signed, the next challenge was to get the 13 states to ratify, and adhere to its premises. To nudge reluctant states to sign the Federalist Papers – a collection of 85 articles and essays – were published under the pseudonym Publius. Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay the papers are interpretations of what’s contained in the Constitution and were envisioned to speed up the ratification.
If the signers of the Constitution found it necessary to help state legislatures and citizens better understand the idiosyncrasies of the Constitution by writing the Federalist Papers, then it’s not unreasonable to continue interpreting the document as it applies to modern-day issues. Sure enough, the Federalist Papers are often referred to by judges in applying the laws-of-the-land.
One aspect of the Constitution, which is coming under scrutiny, is the Electoral College. In Federalist [Paper] No. 39, James Madison argued the Constitution was designed to be a mixture of state-based and population-based government. Federalist [Paper] No. 68, written by Alexander Hamilton presents the advantages of the Electoral College, focusing on elections taking place among states so they can’t taint “the great body of the people.” He also commented Electoral College delegates – none of whom can be a U.S. officeholder – have information that might be unavailable to the general public.
Unfortunately, recent history has twice elected a president for whom didn’t receive the population vote, which begs the question, is it time to re-interpret this aspect of the Constitution to elect a president who is chosen by the majority of people?