By Jeffrey Abramowitz
It has been criticized, analyzed, memorialized, and demonized. It has been stretched, bent, twisted, molded, tweaked, and abused. It is, by far, the most durable piece of parchment ever written: The Constitution of the United States of America. This 4,234-word document single handedly created a nation and tirelessly defined new concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all the while structuring a way of life for all those who trust and believe in its guiding principles. This precious document has withstood the strains of civil and world wars, the stain of American slavery, economic depressions and recessions, a multitude of national tragedies and, most recently, attacks upon our nation’s Capital. The Constitution has stood firm and weathered the ultimate test: the test of time.
In light of the most recent challenge to our constitutional democracy, the insurrectionist events of January 6, 2021, I have stopped to consider and reflect on the guiding principles of our nation as set forth in our Constitution. To refresh our middle-school knowledge of American history, the Constitution begins with:
“We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union, established justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our prosperity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”
With these words, a group of determined, well-educated and philosophical men craftily etched a framework that possessed power and vision far beyond those who penned it into existence. Of course, much forethought and consideration was given to each word inked into the parchment, and yet, there must be a frank acceptance of the reality that these Founding Fathers could not possibly have dreamt of the multitude of challenges and advancements that lay ahead for this nascent nation. Some would suggest that these men clearly knew, or perhaps should have known, that future circumstances would require an in-depth look into the meaning and purpose behind each of the words the Founding Fathers inscribed. Perhaps they also should have predicted there would be careful consideration given to the words that were consciously omitted. For example, nowhere in either the Constitution or the preceding Declaration of Independence is the word “democracy” found. The form of government created by these radical documents granted freedoms rarely realized by society at the time. Democracy was yet to be implemented or even developed in another organized nation, let alone be accepted as the “gold standard” of effective governance. The right to speak freely, to practice the religion of your choice, and to have a trial by jury of your peers were novel, and essentially revolutionary, ideals. And yet, the greatness of this document is found not only in the chosen words and concepts that developed these principles, but in the repeated ability of its four corners to provide a reliable source of guidance and wisdom to a constantly evolving society. The forethought to diffuse power, keep factions in check, and prevent tyranny by the greedy few are some of the elements that make this document so magical, and are among the statutes most responsible for keeping our miraculous country intact.
Some scholars argue that the Constitution has outlived its course as our society has outgrown the original, guiding principles and the context under which they were created. Even so, this document has been tested repeatedly, and its form, strength, flexibility, and depth have always found a way to fix, or at least temporarily mend, what was broken and met the needs of our ever-demanding multicultural nation. Somewhat like a seatbelt which protects us while driving a car, the Constitution often goes unnoticed, until a tragic event occurs and we turn to the document, desperate for its teaching and reasoning.
Our Founding Fathers claim, in the opening statement of the Constitution, that the ultimate objective was to strive towards a “more perfect union.” This simple and echoed statement implicitly suggests that they knew, even then, that our government was far from perfect. As we remain focused on reaching towards this ideal, our established framework needs constant coddling, attention and analysis to continuously uncover what qualifies as the best — or closest to perfect — way forward for our country and all the people in it.
Admittedly, the Constitution as enacted was far from perfect. Mentions of gender and racial inequality were not just noticeably omitted, but these morally reprehensible systems were essentially codified as part of the “American way.” The Bill of Rights may have attempted to fill the gaps of speculation on natural, personal freedoms and liberties, but fell short of correcting these disparities, enabling them to continue on far too long in the United States as the proponents for racism and sexism could rely on the Constitution to support their hateful behaviors. Even now, as many wrongs have been corrected through constitutional challenges in our judicial system, the Constitution still struggles as it is warped in arguments over abortion access, marriage equality, and the right to vote. And yet, we trust that the Constitution will continue to serve as the ultimate guide through these difficult processes of evaluation and debate.
Our faith in the Constitution comes from an unspoken understanding that the flaws which rear their head from time to time become the cost of tremendous freedom that we have been granted and which we hold onto steadfastly. Despite many attempts and abuses by those holding the swords of justice and power, “We the People” have, for decades, fiercely protected the rights, privileges and freedoms that we have been granted. This, of course, has not been without restriction. We understand that, part of the American contract, is an agreement to put our personal freedoms and interests aside in the name of collective wellbeing and safety. For example, we know that our right to speak freely does not include the liberty to yell “fire” in a crowded theater or to attack others with threats of violence. Thus, the assertion that our government currently finds itself on the brink of theoretical and philosophical collapse is misguided. Even at a time of unprecedented polarization and division, we seek for interpretations of our founding documents to guide us through these challenges and ensure that our promised freedoms remain protected. The Constitution is not to blame for political stalemates and upheaval. Rather, it is through these concerning times that we lean on this document to re-center our focus on the shared goal of retaining a strong, democratic republic.
We face numerous challenges in this new century: spanning technological advancements far beyond the possible imagination of our Founding Fathers to attacks on our nation’s Capital Building and political leaders which would have once seemed far-fetched. Each branch of our solidly grown tree now seems to have broken limbs, which threaten the stability and health of the roots themselves. Therefore, our faith and resolve in the Constitution has never been more crucial. Americans must stand firm in their belief and remain unwavering in their absolute trust in the guiding principles which have yet to fail us. History has proven that neither market crashes, nor police brutality, divisive impeachment proceedings, terrorist attacks, union uprisings or even violence at the Capitol can shake this tree from the ground. Its roots remain firmly planted in the American people.
Now, more than ever, we must trust those words and ideals which have directed us since our inception and inspired a model for governance throughout the world. Our Constitution is not broken rather, it is in need of the attention, introspection, and confidence that helps it grow and evolve. The Constitution speaks, breathes, and at times, stumbles, but always gets back up. Our Constitution, and thus, our country, are truly indestructible if we all buy into its strength and promise.