What do the presidential candidates think about the Constitution? In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Seth Lipsky proposed a televised debate for GOP presidential candidates to discuss their views on the Constitution. Sounds great! But if we are going to have a real conversation about the Constitution, let’s not waste time responding to trite fictions about our Founding document. The Constitution has been around for 224 years—long enough for rumors to spread. We at New Common Sense have been keeping track of them. Here’s a look at the top 5 myths about the Constitution:
1. The Constitution is racist: There is no better way to end a heated conversation about the Constitution than to claim that the Constitution is racist. In his feature on the Constitution, Time magazine managing editor Richard Stengel dismissed the Constitution because the Framers “gave us the idea that a black person was three-fifths of a human being.”
The Constitution does not classify people according to race. Free blacks in the North and the South were counted on par with whites for purposes of apportionment. Southern states wanted slaves to count as full persons to inflate pro-slavery representation in the House of Representatives. The three-fifths compromise was designed to prevent Southern states from magnifying their political power. The word “slave” or “slavery” never appears in the Constitution. When the 13th Amendment was ratified, not a single word of the Constitution needed to be deleted. As the escaped slave turned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, once commented: the Constitution “was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government.”
2. There is no way to know what the Constitution means: When asked on MSNBC to comment on the 112th Congress’s decision to read the Constitution aloud, Washington Post writer Ezra Klein replied “The issue of the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.”
Thanks to commentaries, pamphlets, letters, well-documented debates, and drafting records from the Founding, the meaning of the Constitution is, in fact, knowable. The Federalist is one of the clearest explanations of the meaning of the Constitution. The Heritage Guide to the Constitution offers a clause-by-clause explanation and analysis of the Constitution.
3. The Constitution is an outdated, 18th century document: Certain that the Constitution is trapped in the 18th century, one publishing company warns readers of its pocket Constitution: “This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today.”
Assuredly, the daily habits of American life have changed since 1787. But technological advances do not necessitate a new Constitution. The Constitution contains no outdated, 18th century policy prescriptions and is not tied to the material and social conditions of a bygone age. Rather, the Constitution establishes the process by which our elected officials make policies. Through these processes, the American people of any era can deliberate, via their elected representatives at the state or federal level, on the issues of the day.
4. The Constitution’s meaning evolves with the times: To the extent that the American left praises the Framers, it is because they “wisely left the Constitution open to generations of reinterpretation.” The left presumes that the Constitution can address today’s questions only if its meaning evolves.
The Constitution means the same thing today as it did two hundred years ago: a republican framework of government that addresses the political questions of the day, whatever these questions may be. The Constitution’s words have a fixed meaning: they do not support perpetual reinterpretation. As former Attorney General Edwin Meese III explains, our written Constitution merits a particular interpretive approach: “where the language of the Constitution is specific, it must be obeyed. Where there is demonstrable consensus among the Founders and ratifiers as to a principle stated or implied in the Constitution, it should be followed. Where there is ambiguity as to the precise meaning or reach of a constitutional provision, it should be interpreted and applied in a manner so as to at least not contradict the text of the Constitution itself.”
5. Judges determine what the Constitution means: As Representative Bob Brady (D-PA) quipped: “Let the Supreme Court deal with the Constitution. Congress passes laws. That’s what we do.”
The Constitution is not whatever judges say it means. All members of the government take an oath to defend the Constitution: as a result, the president and the legislature have a duty to interpret and follow the Constitution. In reality, the Supreme Court’s decisions are binding on the parties involved, but these decisions do not rise to the status of supreme law of the land “binding on all persons and parts of government henceforth and forevermore.”
With these myths aside, let’s have a real conversation about the Constitution. How does tonight sound?