Today is the 224th birthday of the US Constitution, one of the most remarkable documents ever written. As Geoffrey R. Stone points out, those who call for strict interpretation of its original words fail to see the progressive nature of the document…
The Constitution has served as the vehicle through which generations of Americans have made and remade their nation. When one steps back, as one should on Constitution Day, and considers the most profound changes in our society since 1789, it is easy to see that, by any reasonable measure, the Constitution has served in the long run as a progressive document that has enabled us to protect the rights, liberties and well-being of our people.
The original Constitution did not even have a Bill of Rights. That was added soon after ratification of the Constitution to ensure that the new national government would not abridge the freedom of speech or prohibit the free exercise of religion; that it would not engage in unreasonable searches and seizures or inflict cruel and unusual punishment; that it would not deprive people of life, liberty or property without due process of law or convict people of crimes without honoring their rights to a jury trial, to the assistance of counsel, and to present their own witnesses and to confront the witnesses against them.
Later, after a bloody Civil War, the American people again amended the Constitution, this time to forbid slavery; to guarantee that no State would deny any person due process of law, the equal protection of the laws, or the privileges or immunities of citizenship; and to grant blacks the right to vote.
Since then, the Constitution has been further amended to authorize the federal income tax so the national government would have sufficient resources to meet the demands of a changing society; to grant women the right to vote; to provide for the popular election of senators; to outlaw the poll tax; and to grant the right to vote to all persons over the age of eighteen.
Almost without exception, our constitutional amendments have been progressive in nature, expanding both individual freedoms and the opportunity for individual Americans to participate more fully in the political and economic life of the nation.
Even apart from the process of amendment, the Constitution has had sufficient flexibility in its often open-ended language to enable government to pursue important social and economic policies that might never have been envisioned by the framers. As understood by the American people, by our elected officials and by our Supreme Court, the Constitution has enabled the national government to enact laws that helped us through the devastation of the Great Depression; prohibited private discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin and disability; promoted workplace safety and the environment; and provided a critical safety net for the aged, the infirm and the needy.
All of these laws, and many besides, were opposed by political conservatives who invoked a crabbed view of the Constitution to argue that the national government had no authority to “promote the general Welfare,” but in the long run those arguments have never carried the day. If one takes the long view, it is clear that it was the progressive vision of the American Constitution, embraced by citizens, legislators, presidents and judges, that ultimately prevailed.