Designing America: #3: What Changed From 1776 to 2006?
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What would have happened in the year 2000 if the framers of The Constitution had included a sunset clause
that cancelled their version in that year, a year more than two
centuries in their future? I suppose we would have had to call a second
constitutional convention in 1999 to draft a new version. Had the
founders decided to limit the life of their work, we might have been
prepared and might not have been so alarmed at the prospect of changing
and, hopefully, improving our basic design of government. Even with
advance warning and preparation, it would not have been a quick or easy
task. I wonder, if they had set a sunset date for revision, what
specific procedures they would have suggested we use in going about a
second constructional convention.
Why would any right thinking
American want to change a word in our basic government design? Would a
second constitutional convention disintegrate into riots and revolution
as warring interests pulled and tugged at possible changes? Or, might
goodwill and compromise lead to a better, and more modern, design? One
thing seems clear: the farther we go into the future the more
antiquated and out of touch The Constitution becomes.
Instead of a sunset clause,
what the founders left us with as a way of improving their work was a
complex and cumbersome amendment process. For example: It would seem
logical and, to some, necessary to grant full and equal rights to women
once they finally secured the right to vote, but an Equal Rights
Amendment was first drafted some eighty years ago and it is still
waiting for enough states to ratify it to make it part of our
One of the chief arguments
against adding an Equal Rights Amendment is the belief that these
rights are already inherent in the Constitution as written. This same
argument was raised against the inclusion of the original Bill Of
Rights; those first ten amendments were added to The Constitution
during its ratification in the late 1700s. Some of the states, still
smarting from the arbitrary and tyrannical rule of the British, refused
to accept anything less than specific, written guarantees of individual
rights. Everything depended on getting The Constitution accepted by
enough states to put the new government into place. Not to have a
unified government might have caused more years of chaos and raised the
possibilities of a divided nation and even civil war.
Why did the founders accept
amendments instead of re-writing the body of The Constitution? They had
spend four long, hot summer months arguing over the draft they finally
signed and sent on to the states, and they were wise enough to avoid
another revision. In any case, they had already committed to an
amendment process in Article V of the Constitution.
If the authors of The
Constitution had, by some magic means, clearly seen and understood our
society of today, would that have made a difference in their writing?
It's a very different world today that the one they knew. Then the
country consisted then of a few million people living along the
Today, we have instant
communication around the world with the Internet. They had only pen and
paper, and a very slow delivery system when it existed at all.
They had to worry about hostile
Native Americans furious over the steady invasion of their homeland. We
have terrorists from abroad.
We can travel thousands of
miles in just hours. The members of the first constitution convention
often had to ride a horse for days to attend the meeting, and then they
were away from home for months at a time.
Most people lived on farms.
Illiteracy was common. Illegal immigration was not a problem. People
kept slaves. Women did not have the rights they have today. In 1780,
entertainment consisted of singing, recitations and dancing. There was
no electricity and, of course, no television, refrigeration or electric
motors to do the work. Life expectancy was short, but now we live long
into old age and have very different medical and financial problems.
There was no retirement system, no mega corporations, no War On Drugs,
and no genetic engineering, space flight, federal banking system,
industrial pollution, or global warming. Today, of course, we have a
much more diverse population. It was a totally different world, and yet
we still live under the government designed for the long vanished world
of Ben Franklin and George Washington.
The legal problems all these
changes have produced are nearly endless. One example is abortion, a
procedure that was rare two centuries ago and horribly risky when
Amazingly, we've made it all
work over the years. If we go about it in the right way, we could
gradually update The Constitution itself - reserving in historical
glory the original version that got us started while recasting it in
light of today's conditions.
Our world today presents many
legal, financial and social problems that could never have been
foreseen in the late 1700s. And so none of these problems are covered
in The Constitution except in the most general sense. It falls to the
Congress and the federal judicial system to settle disputes that arise
from this quagmire, and the individual voter has little say about any