The U.S. Constitution is invoked a lot these days, but do those who claim to cherish it really know what it says? Seth Lipsky’s The Citizen's Constitution is an eye-opener, written for the ordinary American (as opposed to attorneys) who wants to gain a better understanding of what may be the most important document ever created.
There’s a tendency to picture the Founding Fathers as a selfless and firmly united group of men who envisioned an idyllic future for our country. It’s an image we picked up in grade school, when we were given to believe that all dead American leaders were great patriots. Even now, most of us accept –without really thinking about it—that the Constitution clearly lays out the rules that preserve our liberty.
Lipsky’s carefully researched annotations will give anyone pause. Then as now, petty self-interests and political maneuvering shaped policy. The bickering began with the first three words of the Preamble: We the People. No less a hero than Patrick Henry objected to the phrase, demanding to know, “Who authorized them to speak the language of, We, the people, instead of, We, the states? States are the characteristics and the soul of a confederation.”
Today we fuss about government’s uncontrolled spending, but it could be so much worse. Consider Article I, Section 8: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States. If Gouverneur Morris had gotten his way, one of those commas would have been a semi-colon which would have given the government separate and unlimited spending power.
For those who believe the Constitution is an infallible set of rules devised by wise and forward-thinking demi-gods, there’s a big surprise awaiting you in Article I, Section 9, which explicitly condones slavery and in Article IV, Section 2–the fugitive slave clause.
We can’t discuss the Constitution without addressing the topic of presidential qualifications. Article II, Section 1 declares that “No Person except a natural born Citizen… shall be eligible to the Office of President…” This, of course, became a hot topic during the 2008 presidential election. Candidate John McCain, you see, was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936. At that time, “the law granted citizenship to children of an American parent born “out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States.” While the Canal Zone was, indeed, outside of U.S. borders, it was not outside its jurisdiction. Technically, McCain was not born a U.S. citizen. It was not until 1937, a year after McCain’s birth, that Congress circumvented this loophole, but still left McCain and many others without U.S. citizenship. It took a resolution by the Senate in 2008 to make McCain a citizen of the United States.
We love our Bill of Rights, don’t we? How often do we lay claim to our First Amendment or Second Amendment rights? But Alexander Hamilton and others were strongly opposed to this addition, suspecting it would lead to despotism. Where would we be and what would we chant at rallies today if Hamilton had gotten his way?
Much of the Constitution, in fact, is ambiguous, which keeps the Supreme Court in business. Of course, it isn’t easy to write a guideline for the ages, and our Founders couldn’t possibly have foreseen the privacy concerns brought about by the Internet, or the cultural shift that taught us to abhor enslaving humans or to respect women’s right to vote. We can’t blame them for the vagueness of the document, not even when the Supreme Court interprets one or another of the Articles in a way that we find disagreeable. (Sorry, Gore supporters, but it does appear that the Constitution favors the vote of the Electors over the vote of the people.)
A pocket-size version of the U.S. Constitution may be handy for the lawyer, but Lipsky’s The Citizen's Constitution is a must-read for every American. Annotations and anecdotes make it a fascinating history. The clarification it provides about our rights and responsibilities can make each of us a better and better-informed citizen.