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When preamble is poetry ... Happy Constitution Day, America!

September 17, 2012|By Matt Pearce

Put on your party hats, Americans. Today is Constitution Day, and this year’s anniversary is a big one: The United States has had the same constitution for 225 years.

The historic, four-page legal compact — born of Enlightenment thinking in a time of slavery — was signed by the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787, in Philadelphia, and some of its words have become almost akin to a national poetry known the world over.

The preamble reads: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The document replaced the nation’s Articles of Confederation, and would go on to display remarkable resilience, surviving the Whiskey Rebellion, the Civil War and disputed presidential elections in 1876 and 2000.

Amended 27 times, the U.S. Constitution has nonetheless proven more resilient than most of its contemporaries; the Dominican Republic, since its independence in 1844, has had at least 32 constitutions.

Not that officials always kept track of the original document, which at one point ended up at a grist mill in Virginia around the time that the British burned down Washington. “In the 1820s, when someone asked James Madison where it was, he had no idea,” Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker.

In recent years, partisan politics has given constitutional literacy a boost. Tea party activists began carrying copies in their pockets, and conservative legal scholars adopted the idea of “originalism,” or trying to interpret the Constitution in the age of Twitter by trying to divine the Founding Fathers’ intentions through the distance of centuries.

Not that all of the founders agreed with the Constitution when it was written. On the day of its signing 225 years ago today, Benjamin Franklin said: “Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them.” 

True to the nation’s sometimes messy founding, Constitution Day became a federal holiday as part of a little congressional sausage-making in 2004 when Sen. Robert Byrd used an amendment to tuck the holiday proposal into an omnibus spending bill.

Today, the current American president, Barack Obama, was a constitutional lawyer before assuming office, and he is accused of ruining the document by both conservatives and liberals

In a recent study published by the New York University School of Law,  professors David S. Law and Mila Versteeg concluded: “Rather than leading the way for global constitutionalism, the U.S. Constitution appears instead to be losing its appeal as a model for constitutional drafters elsewhere. The idea of adopting a constitution may still trace its inspiration to the United States, but the manner in which constitutions are written increasingly does not.” 

Happy Constitution Day to you and yours.


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