4543 words. 39 signers. 224 years of democracy.
The Bible is nearly 20 times longer. The original Harry Potter book has 70,000 more words. John Grisham takes twice as long to write his average thriller as these authors did to write a document that changed the world. And, yet in all its simplicity, our Constitution remains the single organizing document that guides our republic and has guaranteed our liberty for 224 years since September 17, 1787.
Even with the Bill of Rights and all the other amendments, it’s still only 7500 words long. And those 7500 words have guaranteed the freedom and independence of our democracy and our citizens for longer than any other modern democratic republic.
The Constitution impacts every American every day. But the vast majority of us have never read past its preamble (essentially an introductory paragraph). A 1998 study by the National Constitution Center showed more teens could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. We frequently confuse the Constitution’s basic content and language with the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Political leaders on the right and left often try to inject new meanings and loaded messages in the Constitution to reinforce their political views or arguments.
So in honor of this auspicious day when our Constitution was originally approved by the Founders, here are some key points to remember about our nation’s blueprint:
1. The Constitution protects our religious freedom and our ability to worship freely— or to not worship at all. While protecting this critical freedom, it studiously keeps government and religion separate. The words God, Creator, Christian and pray are nowhere to be found in the document. The founders knew those things belong in church and our private lives, not in government. It’s a shame more of today’s Christian conservative politicians don’t follow their example.
2. The Constitution gives the President a handful of enumerated powers laid out in just 4 quick paragraphs. Thankfully, no one in the room went along with Ben Franklin’s idea for a virtual co-presidency. The beauty of the document is that it allows for great flexibility and growth. On many matters, it leaves more doors open, than closed. This allows the Presidency to grow with the times. It recognizes the developing complexity of our society and America’s place in the world.
3. The Constitution doesn’t care about our feelings. It never mentions happiness or exhorts us to pursue it. That’s the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution is designed to protect liberty and freedom of speech and it does so aggressively. The Constitution is on the side of unpopular, ornery and difficult opinions and viewpoints. It’s that dissent that makes America great.
4. The Constitution invented divided government and gridlock. By creating the three branches of government, the framers of the Constitution were trying to foster debate and dissent. They had lived under a monarchy and they wanted to ensure that power in the new government was not focused in one man or institution. Much of the give and take in modern day Washington is a direct result of the balance of powers and the specific duties reserved for each branch. That’s the way it was designed to be– we’re not a parliamentary system with a king and a prime minister. That’s called Britain.
5. The Constitution gets things wrong sometimes and the framers knew it would. The Bill of Rights was essentially added immediately and the amendment process provides a unique mechanism to adapt and develop the document for changing times. The courts exist to determine whether lawmakers get the basic boundaries of the Constitution right. Those decisions are ultimately supposed to be judicial, not political.
It’s important to remember that the men who wrote this document were flawed and victims of their times. Many were slave owners. They lived in a small country. The white population of the nation was less than 4 million people. Things have changed dramatically and yet the document is still relevant because of its fluidity and adaptability.
The Constitution belongs to all Americans. Not just to a chosen few. It’s not just for the self-proclaimed patriots or the military or the politicians. It’s our citizen handbook, our owner’s manual for our democracy. We have to read it, preserve it and demand our rights, if we hope to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”