On Sept. 17, 1787 — 226 years ago exactly — our Founding Fathers adopted the original seven articles of the Constitution, hoping and praying their ideas for a republic would endure into a future they could not know or even understand. They relied upon a keen understanding of human nature, reduced to writing timeless principles knowing that time would bring changes and necessary amendments to what they had done.
And they succeeded. Today, America is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. And while we’ve come to an impasse in our politics, there are still lessons and hope from our founding document that can guide us into the future.
On Constitution Day, there’s a tendency to romanticize, or even fetishize, our nation’s founding document. There’s no shortage of people who argue we’ve abandoned its true meaning, and that we must interpret it consistent with the understanding of its framers, ignoring more than two centuries of history, scientific developments and social change. But the beauty of our system is that we don’t have to. The Constitution wasn’t handed down like the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It wasn’t inspired by God. (In fact, one of the most grotesque attempts to marry church and state is Utah artist Jon McNaughton’s treacly painting “One Nation Under God,” which depicts Christ handing the Constitution to a young boy in a crowd of Americans from all eras of history.)
The Constitution is certainly not divine. It’s been amended 17 times, and to correct serious deficiencies, such as allowing slavery, denying slaves and women equal participation in political life, and enumerating some very basic rights omitted from the original document.
Not only that, but the struggle over the meaning of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights continues to this day, in courtrooms and legislatures. We may have ended slavery and extended suffrage to women, but we continue to debate whether gays may marry, whether the Constitution permits wholesale data collection of Americans’ phone calls and Internet activity, and whether the children of illegal immigrants brought here in their youth should eventually be entitled to the benefits of citizenship.
“It really has been a growth document,” says Sylvia Lazos, professor at the Boyd School of Law at UNLV. Lazos says the school of thought — best represented by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said this year the Constitution is “dead, dead dead” — fails to recognize the changes in society. We wrestle with issues today that would have confounded the founders — a globally interconnected society, weapons of mass destruction, stunning scientific advances, technology unimaginable just a generation ago. But when we do, we wrestle with them using the founders’ best ideas of equality, due process, equal justice under law and individual freedom.
It was almost not that way: In the raucous debates over the Constitution, the issue of representation in the Congress became one of the most contentious. It threatened to derail the entire process, until a compromise was struck, allotting two senators per state regardless of population, and a House of Representatives apportioned according to population. That accord — which certainly didn’t please everyone — saved the Constitution as we know it today.
Our current lawmakers could learn from that: The lesson of America and America’s Constitution isn’t that we fight to a draw. The lesson is that we fight to a resolution, a compromise both sides can accept. Only by emulating the spirit that impelled our founders to finish the Constitution can we move forward today with the work of striving to build and re-build that more perfect union. We’ve come a long way since 1787, but we’ve a long way yet to go.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.