This past Saturday was something called “Constitution Day,” though, except for some obnoxious fliers around campus put up by the Orwellian-sounding Committee for Freedom, you can be forgiven for not knowing that. Constitution Day is a new quasi-holiday foisted upon us by Congress at the behest of Sen. Robert Byrd to force schools receiving public money — including Yale — to set aside time on the anniversary of the document’s adoption in 1787 to teach about the Constitution.
This holiday is another ridiculous example of the “sanctimonious reverence,” as Thomas Jefferson termed it, in which many Americans hold the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents no doubt played important roles in the American colonies’ struggle to free themselves from British rule and establish a new nation. Recognizing them as crucial pieces of American history is one thing, but worshiping them like sacred texts goes too far.
The Constitution in particular needs to be stripped of much of the mystic awe surrounding it, since it continues to shape American political life, yet suffers from serious flaws. Many of these flaws could be corrected by wise legislation, if only legislators, and the public, were not so deeply attached to the Constitution that they cringe before any attempt to substantively alter it.
The Constitution, while laying the foundation for the creation of a great American nation, was also very much a product of its time. Though it has mostly aged well, the Constitution has also given us a rigid 18th-century political system not always well suited to the modern world. Even with its amendments, the document is fraught with problems too rarely acknowledged by politicians or the public.
As Yale political scientist Robert Dahl has pointed out, the Constitution is grossly undemocratic. Since Wyoming, with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, has the same clout in the Senate as California, with almost 34 million, each Wyomingite counts 68 times as much as each Californian. The Constitution is also responsible for burdening us with the Electoral College, a body designed to purposely undermine popular sovereignty. The 2000 election, when Al Gore outpolled George Bush but was denied the presidency by the Electoral College (with an assist by the Supreme Court), is the most recent example of 18th-century oligarchy trampling 21st-century democracy.
Besides being undemocratic, the Constitution is also, in places, just poorly written. Take the Second Amendment, which mentions the need for a well-regulated militia and conferring the right to bear arms. Because of the Framers’ unclear wording, no one has been able to establish definitively whether this right belongs only to the militia or to individuals. The easiest and fairest solution would be to just rewrite the Second Amendment, but because the Constitution has taken on the aura of sanctity in our political culture, there is little likelihood of that happening.
Adhering to the Framers’ “original intent,” as many conservatives would have us do, is a recipe for oligarchy (which was, after all, what the Framers wanted). Creating the Electoral College and denying the vote to women, blacks and poor people were both part of the Framers’ desire to keep power in the hands of people like themselves (and I have a sneaking suspicion many “strict constructionalists” would prefer things that way). The main alternative — seeing the Constitution as a “living document” subject to constant reinterpretation — is also anti-democratic, since it allows the judiciary to usurp power from the elected legislative branch. The Constitution needs changing, but it should not be up to the courts to change it.
Some of the Constitution’s worst features have, it is true, been corrected by amendment — though in the case of ending slavery and giving blacks the vote, the price was civil war. The Framers deliberately made changing the Constitution difficult, but at the price of a rigidity that has made the U.S. political system ossified and anachronistic. Jefferson argued that each generation should modify the Constitution to fit its own times, since “each generation has the same right of self-government [as] the past one.” Jefferson’s modest regard of the Constitution as an edifice in need of constant repair is a much better way of think of our nation’s most important document than the sanctimony that has given us “Constitution Day.”
Jeff Mankoff is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the History Department.