Constitution has weathered well


You don’t have to be a history scholar to appreciate the durability of the U.S. Constitution. The
document has held up remarkably well, weathering frequent debate, a Civil War, and changes that our
Founding Fathers could not have imagined.
But today, on its 227th birthday, we would be foolish to think the Constitution a perfect document. After
all, the Founding Fathers knew it had flaws. But they also knew the nation needed guiding principles and
rights guaranteed for its citizens.
So the signers did something we rarely see in our national leaders today – they compromised.
Thomas Jefferson, who did not sign the Constitution since he was in France at the time, was quite vocal
about his displeasure with the document. But he knew the value of a map for our nation, even if some
detours had to be taken along the way.
One defect with the Constitution, Jefferson and others felt, was the absence of the Bill of Rights when
the document was signed on Sept. 17, 1787. But the Founding Fathers were only human, and were impatient
to get the Constitution signed. Though not a noble reason, one trustee of the National Constitution
Center said the framers had spent four long summer months in heated debate – in a room with closed
windows so no one could listen from the outside. The historian said the delegates did not want to
prolong the convention, so the bill of rights was overruled.
But that gaping hole in the Constitution was patched four years later with passage of the first 10
amendments making up the Bill of Rights. Since then another 17 amendments have been added.
"Originalists" believe the interpretation of the Constitution cannot change over time. I
understand the reluctance to view it as a "living document," that changes every time the wind
blows public opinion in a different direction.
But how can one reconcile that "originalist" reading of the Constitution with the issue of
slavery? The document states that each slave should count as three-fifths of a person for the
calculation of Congressional delegates per state. How glaring of a example do we need to realize that
there are times when our Constitution can no longer be interpreted as it was centuries ago?
And who’s to say what the Founding Fathers were thinking when they inked the document? With the wonder of
the internet, you can find quotes from Constitution framers supporting almost any view you like.
The document signers were all white men, in the upper economic end of society. They ranged in age from 26
(Jonathan Dayton) to 81 (Ben Franklin). They had varied backgrounds, with 35 lawyers, 13 business
owners, six land speculators, 11 securities speculators. At least 12 owned or managed slave-operated
plantations or large farms, and two had small farms.
Most were not outsiders to government. The vast majority were or had been members of the Continental
Congress. And nine earned substantial income from public office.
Despite what some proponents of small government say today, most of the framers of the Constitution
recognized the need for a national government with some teeth. The document was replacing the Articles
of Confederation, which gave broad authority to states and gave little power to the national government.
Most of the Founding Fathers recognized this balance was unworkable and a threat to the survival of a
new nation. There was a group that wanted a weak federal government. Those anti-federalists opposed the
Constitution – and they lost.
I think we’re selling the Constitution short when we limit our interpretation to just what some
self-proclaimed scholar believes our forefathers thought as they signed the document.
I think they were smart enough to know the Constitution provided a rock solid foundation, but that as our
nation aged, we may need to exercise judgment to fit our changing country.
Our current Congress could learn a lesson from the aging document – on the value of compromise.

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