America's Holy Scroll

America's Holy Scroll

Generally speaking, a society with laws has a higher quality of life than a society without laws - more specifically, a society that maintains the ability to enforce laws is better off than a society that cannot. How a law is generated depends on its jurisdiction - a law concerning parking regulations in your neighborhood has an entirely different construction than an international trade law; a law in France uses different references and precedents than a law in the United States. And in the United States, the foundation of our law - and by extension, the foundation of our society - is drawn from our Constitution. 

Our Constitution is one of the oldest in the world. In effect since 1789, it has witnessed the rise and fall of a legion of governments, kingdoms, reichs and juntas overseas. It is a beautiful testament to the Enlightenment era, when the argument for a government beholden to its people was being stated with increasing vigor in the face of entrenching autocracy throughout Europe. The American Revolution that was responsible for the Constitution was a rarity onto itself - it was the first of the modern European colonies to break away, and it has definitely been the most successful. The closest comparing revolutions to the American are the French and the Haitian - the French Revolution arguably had more influence on history, but it also lapsed back to autocracy under Napoleon, benevolent as he may have been seen; the Haitian Revolution was an extended episode of horror, revenge, and betrayal that did not lead to a stable government - the island of Hispaniola would almost constantly be in some sort of tumult.

The basis of the Constitution can be most directly be seen in the English Bill of Rights, drawn up in 1689 after the Glorious Revolution. It was the perceived failure of the King and Parliament to adhere to these Bill of Rights that helped push America toward independence - but though America did achieve independence, it still retained the same legal and cultural basis of its mother country. Common law was generally preferred over civil law - the distinction being that common law draws legitimacy from past rulings and precedents while civil law draws legitimacy from legal codes enacted by the ruling class. It's a distinction that effectively pits the judgment of juries and local judges against the judgment of centralized power, and that common law was retained is as much a cultural carryover as it is an intentional choice by the Founders to decentralize power.

The choice of direction for the nation was not easy. The Founders were a varied group of men with varied interests - radical democrats debated monarchists as those who favored an agrarian, decentralized society butted heads with those who favored a mercantile, centralized government. This political contortion was a drawn out affair - America achieved independence in 1783, but the Constitution wasn't ratified until 1789. Further amendments then had to be added in 1791 - the Bill of Rights that we all know and love had to be tacked on because of concern of a government ignoring the rights of its citizens in the same way George III ignored the rights of his colonial subjects. 

What is less talked about is the constitution that came before. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was the first American constitution, and is not nearly as revered by patriots as its successor. Initially written down soon after the Declaration of Independence and ratified in all 13 states in 1781, it was a flawed document by flawed men that was not able to meet the needs of the new nation after independence had been achieved. That several of these flawed men were also involved in drafting the Declaration and the later Constitution is not surprising, but serves to humanize the Founders - they were educated, they were successful, and they were brave. But building a nation is messy business, and they realized their fallibility - hence their acquiescence for the necessity of amendments to a constitution. They were smart enough to know the limits of their intelligence and experience.

The Constitution today is a mark of pride for Americans; a collection of 7,591 words that almost none of us have read, but most of us revere. The liberty it affords citizens and non-citizens alike has great historical significance and is an essential link in the chain that led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The place it holds in American legend and legal foundation is unparalleled. But it must not be thought that it is sacred - it is, as everything manmade, a flawed document by flawed men, much like the Articles of Confederation. It is open to alteration and interpretation as times change, such as when slavery lost its legal protection and radio, television and internet challenged what "free speech" entailed.

The laws that we have should obey the Constitution not because the Constitution was divinely inspired wisdom crafted by agents of God, but because law must be structured and comprehensible and must not deviate from its bedrock. Federalism enables there to be a distinction between federal, state and local laws, but all derive their base legal legitimacy from the Constitution - most notably the Tenth Amendment, which dictates that everything not outlined in the Constitution is up to the states to decide. As this bedrock morphs through amendments, so can everything built on top of it; deviation from this bedrock will unsettle the entire structure and threaten it with collapse.

The best lesson to draw from the Constitution is the concerns that the Founders have are still all valid - the concerns for free press, free speech, resistance to tyrannical government, resistance to foreign invasion, maintaining a fair judicial system and every other root of every article and amendment are just as important now as they were in the 18th century. The language may have changed slightly and the tools of resistance and oppression have evolved, but a free society is predicated on having laws that ensure it.

So do not confuse criticism of the Constitution with sedition. Its shortcomings are self-evident and intentional, and it is our responsibility to keep it relevant for our modern era and keep it in reverence for future generations. 

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