Learning the Constitution Is Essential for Americans
Debate over the legality of the healthcare law makes knowing the Constitution important
During the runup to the recent midterm elections, candidates frequently debated whether various legislative initiatives like national
healthcare were constitutional, while others argued how far the First Amendment could stretch. "Ultimately, a democracy can survive only if people are informed about the Constitution," says
The efforts of political figures to wrap their arguments in the Constitution, however wrong or right they may be, are hardly new, particularly during heated election seasons. Scholars say that comparing the current political climate with that of 1787, when the Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, can be instructive. Like partisans today, the Framers differed greatly over issues such as the limits of executive power and how the government should levy taxes.
Ironically, when delegates to the
However, the Framers presciently -- and correctly -- realized that some weaknesses in the Constitution might only become apparent to future generations. Black Americans were not recognized as full citizens until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and a black man could not vote until ratification of the 15th Amendment two years later. Women had to wait another five decades until they were given suffrage under the 19th Amendment in 1920.
With the subsequent amendments and judicial interpretations, Eisner says, "more and more people have been added to 'We the People.' " The Constitution is an evolving document that aspires to be fully inclusive, he observes, "and over time, we've been coming closer and closer to its aspiration."
Yet two schools of thought continue to debate the Constitution's role in society: "originalists" who believe it should be strictly interpreted according to the Framers' original intent, and an opposing school of those who believe in a "living Constitution" that was written so it could adapt to a changing nation. No wonder scholars call the document "America's civic religion." It is what we use to define ourselves, says Beeman.
And this will only continue in coming years, scholars agree, as issues like national healthcare legislation, same-sex marriage, and immigration reform are argued, perhaps even before the
Given the spotlight on this historic document, you might want to reread it. Better yet, experts suggest, immerse yourself in the history of its evolution. The National Constitution Center (www.constitutioncenter.org) near Independence Hall, where the original document was signed, features interactive exhibits to help visitors experience the Constitution. For example, you can decide real cases from the center's
At the National Archives in
For more in-depth research, consider the many books written by or about the Founding Fathers and influential
"The Constitution is like the owner's manual for the government," says Eisner. "It's the simplest, shortest, fastest way to look at America in terms of where we've been and where we aspire to go." Getting reacquainted with the nation's most vital document could turn out to be an essential exercise for every citizen.
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