Tahlequah Daily Press

February 17, 2014

Constitution’s language is its strength

The first in an ongoing series about the document and its amendments

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — It is the supreme law for 300 million people, even if it was a do-over. It has influenced the formation of governments in other nations, though those directly governed by it often bicker over what it means.

The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest document of its kind. There are older written documents that still hold legal force, such as the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Statutes of San Marino, written in 1600. But the U.S. Constitution is the oldest single-source document still in effective use.

While all of the founders took part in creating the Constitution, James Madison gets the lion’s share of credit as the author. Alexander Hamilton and John Jay also receive much acknowledgement.

The three were members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a gathering of state delegates who met for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” and Perpetual Union.

The more the framers looked at the Articles and their Congress, the more they didn’t like them. Sentiment grew for an effectual central government, and the Articles were thrown out.

After much compromise between the 13 colonies and a laborious three-year ratification process which produced the Bill of Rights, the Constitution went into effect for all of the United States with Rhode Island’s ratification in May 1790.

It is a short document - the shortest constitution in the world. Its brevity has been troublesome, but also might be the key to its endurance.

“Article 1 permits Congress to tax and spend to further the ‘general welfare,’” said Dr. Daniel Savage, chairman of the Department of Geography, Political Science and Sociology at Northeastern State University.

“General welfare as been reinterpreted throughout our history. Article 2 gives the president ‘executive power’ but never defines this power nor spells out precise limits to it. Article 3 neither defines nor limits the ‘judicial power’ of the Supreme Court. There is a flexibility that a more detailed and precise document would lack.”

State Rep. Mike Brown said the framers realized the world changes and that the United States would need a “living document,” but also gave the Constitution some rigidity.

“They deliberately made the amendment process difficult to prevent changes made strictly for political reasons,” he said. “An amendment must receive two-thirds of a vote in Congress and be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. But change is possible.”

There are many other ambiguities. Who are “the people?” In the 1780s, the people were white male landowners at least 21 years of age.

“I would like to believe that even though some of our Founding Fathers were slaveowners and bigots, they really did leave room for future generations that may interpret words differently,” said Dana Rogers, Democratic party chairwoman for Cherokee County. “In no way can I attempt to understand their mindset, because in my mind people are simply human. But considering the change these men saw just in their own lifetimes, I hope they wanted enough ambiguity to allow the document to survive.”

Dr. Shannon Grimes, Republican party chairman for Cherokee County, agreed there is some uncertainty in the text, but believes there are plenty of contemporary writings to provide context.

“The Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, and others, shed a great deal of light on what was meant when the words were written,” he said. “The limitations placed on our national government by the Constitution are often circumvented. Many pay lip service to the Constitution, but I’m afraid there are few, particularly in government, that value the context and spirit in which the words were intended.”

Denise Deason-Toyne, an attorney and president of Save the Illinois River Inc., said the 1780s were a time of “rapid changes in philosophies and social ideologies.”

“It made sense to draft a document which could be interpreted differently rather than amended,” she said. “Amendments take a long time. Moreover, if the language had been more specific, the failure to state something could be interpreted today as ‘if they didn’t say it, then they didn’t want it included.’ An example is the right to privacy. We have some expectations of privacy, though there is no specific mention in the Constitution or the Bill of RIghts. They have been interpreted to provide that right.”

In the coming months, the Tahlequah Daily Press will publish stories relating to the Constitution and its amendments.