NOTE: This piece, as will be with every piece in this series, is a very brief glimpse into the overall history and politics that shape our American ideology.
In every social studies class and Government 101 class in college the Constitution is covered. Usually not in great detail, and sometimes with the teacher’s own personal biases mixed in. Yet, every American is instructed on the document that is the foundation for laws and government for their country. Surprisingly though, many Americans cannot accurately tell you which amendment contains the freedom of religion or where in the Constitution they can find the enumerated powers of the three branches of government. A people ignorant of the document that protects them from the overreach of government cannot prevent the stripping away of their freedoms, or realize that those freedoms were there to begin with. This is why I am starting with the Constitution. Not, only because it is a great document to use to develop the American Ideology, but also to give the readers a desire to read again the document that is so important to their freedom.
Since the founding fathers began working on a Constitution to today, the debate behind the interpretation of the second greatest document ever written (second only to the Bible) has continued. To state that the founding fathers were unanimous in their support for the Constitution would be inaccurate.
The men who fought the Revolution against the British and formed this great nation were divided during the ratification of the Constitution (September 1787 to July 1788), and split into political groups called Federalists and Anti-federalists. These were the beginnings of the dual party system we have today. The Federalist argued for the ratification of the Constitution which established a strong central government, but still allowed for the sovereignty of the States. The Anti-federalists argued against the ratification in support of a united confederacy of sovereign States. Ultimately the Federalists were able to persuade the American people, and the Constitution was officially ratified in 1788 and became the law of the land.
The fact we have a Constitution or its history of ratification has never been the hot topic of debate, but the interpretation of this document is where much of the division lies. There are many in this country that would say that the Constitution is a “living, breathing document”, which is to say that it “progresses” with the American people. There are also those who are labeled “constructionists” who believe that the Constitution is legal contract, and therefore is a stalwart document and its meaning can only be changed with amendments. In further study of the founding father’s opinions of the Constitution, they would say the Constitution is a legal contract between the governed and the government, and can only change with the people through the amendment process. Yet, as America progressed through centuries the “constructionist” belief dwindled more and more, yet with the rising of the modern conservative movement more people are beginning to understand the founding father’s opinion of the Constitution and are asking questions to the validity of the “living, breathing” or “progressive” position.
It is important to understand that both thought processes have a place into today’s political environment. The “progressive” interpretation of the Constitution led to the abolition of slavery (13th Amendment), the 14th , 15th and 19th Amendments which are very important to the progression of this country. Yet, the “progressive” interpretation of the Constitution has led to some rather harmful positions as well. For example: “Separation of Church and State” being inserted into the 1st Amendment as to mean Government to be separated from religion (which was never the intent of the founding fathers), Legalized Abortion (which would have turned the stomachs of anyone who was born before the turn of the 19th-20th century), and Flag Burning and Pornography protected under the freedom of speech. Anyone would be hard pressed to find a document that the founding fathers wrote that would support any of these positions, yet they have become accepted interpretations by many in “progressive” camp.
If you examine the previous goods that have come from the “progressive” camp you will see that many of them were achieved through “constructionist” methods (i.e. the amendment process). Yet, the arguments used to support these amendments originated from a “living, breathing” interpretation. I say this, because a strict “constructionist” interpretation would have maintained that African Americans should only amount to 3/5 a person.
A “progressive constructionist” view of the Constitution would best fit into an American ideology. It would allow for some interpretation of the constitution, but would require that any law that is proposed, that is contrary to the original intent of the constitution or the amendment in question, be subject to the Amendment process. This kind of position would be consistent with the evolution of this country, and would uphold the founding principles that make this country great.