Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reading the Constitution

The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives plans to stage a reading of the Constitution on Thursday, January 6. Good for them. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and writing about the Constitution and the early years of the Republic, I'd like to offer some suggestions.

- I hope they let one of the African-American members read, with appropriate scorn and derision, Article I, section 2, where "other Persons" -- meaning slaves, a word the Framers were reluctant to use -- count as only 3/5 of a free person. (The real tragedy of the compromise on slavery was not that slaves were deemed only 3/5 human but that they were counted at all, for their numbers strengthened the political power of the slave states and delayed the moral reckoning that came with the Civil War.)

- I hope the reader very carefully enunciates the last clause of article I, section 8, which gives Congress the power "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper" to execute its other powers.

- I hope that after reading, they realize that two of the most important political powers to radical conservatives are not even mentioned specifically in the Constitution -- judicial review of laws and congressional powers of oversight. Now I happen to believe that both of those powers are implicit in the other provisions of the document, but strict constructionists need to be aware when they invoke powers that are not explicit.

- I also hope that lawmakers will reflect on the compromise nature of the Constitution. There  were compromises not only on slavery but on the disproportionate representation in the Senate -- the only part of the Constitution which now cannot be changed.  Ratification was not even left to the state legislatures, but to special conventions. And the framers banned dissenters from ever holding office even in state government by requiring that all officials -- and they were thinking of Constitution opponents like George Mason and Patrick Henry -- be required to take an oath to support the new government framework.

The Republic has endured and prospered, but only because of a political process that allowed compromise and change.

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