Fall 2008, Vol. 40, No. 3
The Constitution: A Treasure Worth the Wait in Line
By Allen Weinstein
Each day, but especially in summer, citizens from all across the United States and many international visitors wait in a long line on Constitution Avenue to enter the National Archives Building in downtown Washington, D.C.
They come from every corner of the country, from "red" states and "blue," from big cities and small towns, and every place in between—families, couples, student groups, senior citizens, and tourists.
For some this is a long-awaited pilgrimage, for others just another stop on the endless "sights-to-see" list in Washington. But they all share a common destination: the most precious and historic documents preserved at the National Archives—America's "crown jewels," as someone once described them, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
About 400 people an hour pass through the National Archives Rotunda to view these treasures, and visitors often linger over the Constitution. It is the easiest to read of the trio of "crown jewels," and sometimes you can see lips moving as a visitor recites the familiar 52-word Preamble, something many may have memorized, or will memorize, in a classroom.
WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The opening words, "We the People," are perhaps the most important in all the founding documents, for they encapsulate the concept of a federal political system and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, in Abraham Lincoln's still eloquently simple formulation of the American republic.
Following the Preamble, visitors discover the 221-year-old blueprint for government we continue to live under today, a government whose rules are still being debated, just as they were by the Founding Fathers.
Now, as we approach our quadrennial exercise in democracy with the election of a new President and Vice President, a few observations are in order.
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention had originally gathered in Philadelphia the summer of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, but James Madison of Virginia (among others) convinced them that it needed to be replaced. And so a fierce debate began.
The issues that produced division, in some cases deep divisions, were important indeed: What powers should the national government have, and which powers should be reserved for the states and for individuals? How should the two houses of Congress be structured in order to mollify both small states and large states? How should the Constitution deal with the issue of slavery, at that time the backbone of the South's economy?
In the end, Benjamin Franklin, then in the twilight of his remarkable life, appealed for all sides to give up some of what they wanted and agree on a compromise document that established three equal branches of government, serving as checks and balances on each other, and enumerated certain powers that would remain with the states and with individuals.
Finally, they heeded Franklin's plea, and the document was approved. After the requisite number of states ratified it, the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land. But the debate has never ended.
Twenty-seven amendments have been added to the Constitution, some of them to resolve matters that were left unresolved by the delegates in 1787. The 27th amendment, dealing with the compensation of members of Congress, was originally proposed as the second amendment but was not ratified until 1992.
We need only review the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court since the days of Chief Justice John Marshall to see how the Constitution continues to be interpreted to resolve conflicts and disagreements that the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen.
The amendments to the Constitution have reflected the history of the country, which has been, to a great extent, the history of advancing the concept of equality before the law and in the public affairs of our democracy. This concept is demonstrated in amendments that abolished slavery; extended the right to vote to all citizens, regardless of race or gender, and to those aged 18 to 21; and provided for the direct election of senators.
To the rest of the world, the Constitution remains relevant—and popular. It is one of the first things that foreign leaders and other foreign visitors want to see when they visit the National Archives. It serves not only as a symbol of our democracy but also as an example for emerging democracies in writing their own constitutions.
Our Constitution also symbolizes that what was important to our democracy in the Founding Fathers' time is just as important today: the need to fairly and fully debate the issues, then set aside differences and, through compromise, come to a resolution on the public issues that are important to the ultimate rulers in a democracy—the people.
Harry S. Truman, borrowing some of Franklin's wisdom, once remarked that when he left the presidency in 1953 and ceased to be an elected official, he was granted a "promotion" to "citizen Truman." He might have been right at home in that line outside the Archives waiting to again view the original U.S. Constitution.
Allen Weinstein is Archivist of the United States.