Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Constitution: The “supreme law of the land” (which is difficult to amend)

Slave who was brutally whipped

The original Constitution included many compromises over slavery - such as the Three-Fifths Clause (Source: Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3), the Slave Importation Clause (Source: Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 1), and the Fugitive Slave Clause (Source: Article 4, Section 2, Paragraph 3) - perhaps the most detested power of them all in the Constitution. These compromises, however, are no more; because slavery has been completely abolished in American society, by the mechanism of constitutional amendment. How are these amendments, then, to be done?

Abraham Lincoln, the president who abolished slavery by means of a constitutional amendment

The answer is that the Constitution specifies an explicit process for how constitutional amendments are to be done. In the words of the Constitution: "The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this constitution, or on the application of the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three-fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress" (Source: Article 5). The only things that could not be touched by constitutional amendment are that "no amendment which may be made prior to the year 1808" could influence certain clauses in the Constitution with regard to the slave trade, and that "no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate." (Source: Article 5) The window for the abolition of the slave trade has long passed; and depriving states of their "equal suffrage in the Senate" has not been proposed by anyone of late; so the power has virtually limitless latitude to affect anything else in the Constitution, provided that the amendment process is followed to the letter (which it has been on 27 occasions - but that's a subject for another post).

United States Bill of Rights

Besides the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished slavery), the most important amendments to the Constitution are those found in the Bill of Rights, the collective name for the first ten amendments to the Constitution. In these amendments are found guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, rights for accused persons, and many other restrictions on the power of the government. These amendments to the Constitution are the parts most thought of when people discuss the Constitution, although they were not included in the original Constitution at all - a testament to the importance of the provision for how the constitution may be amended. If it were too easy to amend, I should make note here, the constitution's system of checks and balances could be eroded by a single act of Congress; but if it were too hard to amend, the wonderful amendments put in place since this time could never have happened; which would have been a terrible tragedy for this country - perhaps even an unmitigated disaster. Thus, the Constitution's provisions might be viewed as "just right" about how difficult it should be to change an amendment.

James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution"

Finally, the Constitution said that "The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the states so ratifying the same" (Source: Article 7); and that "This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." (Source: Article 6, Section 2) The ratification process was long since completed (see my post about this for further details), and the Constitution has been the "supreme law of the land" for over 200 years. Its record of success speaks for itself.

Another picture of James Madison

As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, "The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with a unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution." (Source: Federalist No. 37)

United States Constitution

In short, the Constitution was a smashing success, and made America great for over two centuries. We would do well to heed it in America, and those outside this country would do well to emulate it, if they wish to experience that same greatness.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

The legislative branch: Two houses of Congress limited by a presidential veto

The executive branch: A single president subject to impeachment and removal

The judicial branch: The power of the courts (and its limits)

Part of a series about
The Constitution

The Constitution itself, and the story behind it

Convention at Philadelphia: The writing of the Constitution (1787)
Preamble: The Constitution's mission statement, with some thoughts about separation of powers
The Congress: Its power to make laws, and the president's power to veto them (in some cases)
Frequency of elections: So how long do all of these people serve, anyway?
Representation: So who decides how many votes each state gets?
Slavery: The complicated legacy of the "Three-Fifths Clause"
The presidency: Powers of the executive, and their being subject to impeachment
The courts: "Good behaviour," some important judicial powers, and how they're appointed
Miscellaneous: Amendment process, "supreme law of the land," and some closing remarks

Debates over the Constitution, then and since

Debates over ratification: Whether to adopt the Constitution in the first place
The "Federalist Papers": Frequently asked questions about them, and why they're important
Debates over checks & balances: Do they actually conflict with separation of powers?
The Bill of Rights: Important in the debates over ratification (adopted 1791)
The Constitution today: Some thoughts about civics education

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