It’s easy for us to forget that the founding fathers, now revered as the heart of a sage and long-lasting establishment, were actually a bunch of iconoclastic ruffians. I’ve discussed how they not only codified terrorism, but were actually basically terrorists themselves earlier, so no need to rehash that. It’s just become so easy for us to forget that they were, well, revolutionary. They were outside the normal bounds of their society, their beliefs were radical and different, and they similarly wanted to engender that same revolutionary spirit in future generations.
Instead, what happened in the wake of revolutionary fervor is what always happens: people forget that part of the revolutionary message is that spirit of ongoing change and instead settle down to revere every syllable uttered by that particular band of revolutionaries. This was never the intended message, but it became the message, especially by the time the dust settled on the Bill of Rights. People were so impressed and enamored with the ideas laid out by the early Americans that they forgot a core principle was a willingness to change and change and change again in exactly the same way that had first taken place. Many people can quote Jefferson’s line about renewing the tree of liberty with blood of patriots, but that gets mistaken as a call to violently defend Jefferson’s precise text rather than his real message of staying radically revolutionary in spirit, of always making changes.
Yes, some changes have been made in the 240 years since the Declaration of Independence. We took slavery out of the Constitution and even allowed women and eventually minorities the right to vote. Equality started to actually fan out to mean some semblance of equality among people, not white male landowners. But somewhere along the way, we completely lost sight of the notion that the Constitution was there to be changed, that it was written with specific procedures to make it a living document. Instead, we insisted on holding it up like any holy text: doctrinally perfect, to be interpreted perhaps, but never altered, never touched, only hallowed forever and ever amen.
It is bizarre that the calcification of the Constitution in our societal perception has coincided with revolutionary changes in the shape and nature of our society. We have become more diverse, more impacted by technology, more connected, more entertained. The social, technological, and economic changes of the last 16 years alone are breathtaking and beyond the average person’s full comprehension. And yet this time has brought the least legal change to our highest governing document, with the exception of a handful of Supreme Court cases that have upheld or struck down certain interpretations thereof. While the change brought about by some of these rulings has certainly been notable, it has only served to further crystallize the notion that the document they are interpreting is itself sacrosanct and that only these high priests we call justices are able to properly tease out any alterations in our understanding. This is not for mere mortals to take on.
We have amended the Constitution just once in the last 45 years. And that was to ratify an amendment originally proposed in 1789! It’s also the amendment of the 27 (17 since the Bill of Rights) that made the least tangible change, simply impacting the timing of pay raises for elected representatives. It is the amendment that is the most technical in our Constitution and the one that impacts by far the fewest people. It is barely an amendment at all, and it is one of the oldest ideas we’ve ratified. So leaving this very much aside, the last change we made was in 1971, dropping the voting age to 18 to match the Vietnam War draft. Those 45 years* are the longest streak of untouched time for our Constitution since its original ratification.
Perhaps worse, we haven’t even proposed an amendment since the 1992 technicality of the 27th amendment was ratified. That’s 24 years of total stagnation, without any formal process for change even being initiated. If we leave out the trivial ’92 amendment, we have to go back to a 1985 proposal to give DC representation in Congress. And before that was the Equal Rights Amendment, the 1979-1982 proposal that somehow failed. That was at least a sweeping potential change that would have fundamentally altered our understanding of our Constitution. And perhaps that’s why it failed despite being an obviously good idea. Maybe after 1971 and the demise of Vietnam, we gave up on change. Maybe that’s when our perceived duty to the original sacred text of America overrode the interest in making society better or, to coin a phrase, “more perfect”.
The founding fathers would not be happy with this state of affairs, folks.
It’s not just because they were revolutionary bandits, though that’s a big part of it that really cannot be said enough. They were the insurgents of their age, the rebels, the outlaws and outcasts. This simply needs to be understood by everyone trying to engage with American politics. But beyond that, they had the foresight to recognize that the world would change after their passing. In the wake of yet another mass-shooting in this country, many of my friends have again raised the rallying cry about how far 18th century muskets were from the semi-automatic weaponry available in today’s open market. This is true, but is only one example among thousands of critical things that they could not have anticipated. The state of our economy and corporations are surely beyond anything that Jefferson and Washington could have fathomed. Corporate personhood, the surveillance state, and even instant communication from radio to television to the internet, all would have dwarfed their imaginations. There is so much that they cannot keep up with. And this is a big part of why amendments were featured in the Constitution and taken seriously with a reasonable ratification process: they knew their own limitations in their ability to anticipate the challenges of the future.
Yes, we obviously need to eliminate or significantly overhaul the second amendment. That should be trivial at this point to anyone paying attention, unless we want to become a society where leaving one’s house carries a 1% risk, over time, of dying in a massacre. But we also need to think more broadly and sweepingly about the Constitution itself and what it does and doesn’t guarantee at this point. And imagine ourselves to be founders, or refounders, creating something more perfect that what we had before. Would the founding fathers really not have enshrined access to healthcare as a right in a world of today’s modern medicine? Would they not have taken steps toward codifying greater equality in a society so governed by scarcity, inequality, and corporate greed? And even if you don’t think they would have agreed with these principles, they surely would have wanted the radicals among us to speak up and stand up for them, to advocate radically altering the Constitution or even casting it aside altogether in favor of something, well, more perfect.
As long as we cling to the original verbiage of the Constitution like a holy and unalterable text, we will be beholden to looking at the world like it stopped in 1789, or at least in 1971. But the world didn’t stop there, it is living and evolving daily, just as the Constitution itself was intended to. You can’t simultaneously defend the America the founding fathers wanted and advocate prolonging this level of stagnation. They would be ashamed of you, ashamed of us. They changed far more in their time than Bernie Sanders would ever advocate. It is a disservice to the principles of this country, such as they are, to insist on not making significant and sweeping changes in our own time.