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GOP Helped Prove U.S. Constitution Living Document

January 7, 2011

Those who call themselves ‘orginalists’  or ‘strict constructionists’ and continually claim that the U.S. Constitution is made of stone were again proved wrong.  This time the lesson was taught with the assistance of none other than some of those who stress the constitution is not a living, expanding, and changeable document.  Republicans themselves!

The Republicans in the House of Representatives created imagery by reading the  constitution aloud from the well of the body.  Problem is they did not read the entire document.  With this action they made the point many of us have stressed over and over…..

Members of the House might have thought they were bringing the Constitution alive by reading it aloud on Thursday. But they made a crucial error by excising its history. When they chose to deliberately drop the sections that became obsolete or offensive, and which were later amended, they missed a chance to demonstrate that this document is not nailed to the door of the past. It remains vital precisely because it can be reimagined.

Having decided to spend their first moments in power proclaiming their devotion to the Constitution, Republican leaders might at least have read the whole thing. The part, for instance, where slaves “bound to service” are counted as three-fifths of a person. The part where fugitive slaves cannot gain their freedom by escaping to a free state. Or the part where ordinary citizens do not actually get a direct vote for their senator.

All these provisions were written by a group of men that many in the Tea Party and elsewhere seem to consider infallible and nearly divine. The Constitution’s words are a stirring proclamation of freedom across the ages. But some passages are artifacts of their time.

Incensed by this rewriting of history, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, arose just before the reading to remind the House of what it was redacting. African-Americans and women struggled for decades to be granted the right to vote, he said, and those struggles are clearly reflected in the text. “Many of us don’t want that to be lost upon the reading of our sacred document,” he said.

But imperfection and change were not the point. The reading was conceived so that Republicans could demonstrate their fidelity to the document and make it seem as though Democrats had abandoned it. After protests, the leadership invited Democrats to join them, and many of them did. It was a stirring moment when John Lewis of Georgia, an icon of the civil rights movement, read to great applause the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery.

That was about all that was stirring. Because so many members wanted a piece of the action, the text’s momentum was broken up by an endless parade of flat, one-sentence recitations, and many lawmakers later returned to their BlackBerrys or left the chamber.

The Constitution deserves better than this airless exercise. It was a work of political genius, largely because its authors handed its interpretation to the open minds of posterity. The effect of Thursday’s reading, in case anyone was actually paying attention, was to wrongly suggest that the document was seamless and perfect, as if carved in marble rather than stained with sweat and American blood.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Patrick permalink
    January 7, 2011 9:27 PM

    Conservatives have always pointed out that the constitution can be changed by the amendment process. My understanding of the debate–and I may be wrong–is that liberals believe that judges have the authority to rectify and–in effect–change the constitution to meet the needs of a changing society. Conservatives have never disagreed that the constitution was a living document in the sense that it could be amended. This should be the sole responsibility of states and voters, not judges. Perhaps this is why liberals tend to pay much more attention to the power of the courts–because they wish to use courts to make changes voters would never tolerate.

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