For the past 14 years, the U.S. Constitution has been read aloud by volunteers on the first Friday of October in Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. This year, I was struck again by the orderliness and structure of the Constitution, and by how very few amendments there are to it since 1776.
Like the earlier Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution makes clear the intentions of its authors:
“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.”
It is a remarkable document in that it lays out the structure for governance in this country by establishing three branches of government: the Executive (Article II); the Legislative (Article 1); and the Judicial (Article III). The other four articles lay out how new states can be added to the United States as well as how a convention and ratification of the Constitution will occur.
It is a remarkable document, and the first ten amendments were adopted during George Washington’s first term, perhaps out of fear that a strong central government might abuse its citizens. Those amendments are called the Bill of Rights because they lay out the basic powers and rights of all U.S. citizens where the government is concerned.
Today we know the Bill of Rights better than we do the Constitution because the Supreme Court spends time hearing cases where those amendments might be at the center of the arguments. The First Amendment covers freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and the right to petition for redress. The Second Amendment covers the right for people to bear arms. The Fourth Amendment establishes the right for “persons, houses, papers and effects” to be free from search and seizure unless probable cause is shown. A speedy trial is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. The Tenth Amendment says that powers not delegated or prohibited in the Constitution to the United States are reserved to the States or to the people.
The founders intended that the three branches of government act as checks and balances upon one another. Members of Congress are elected by citizens of states. Members of the Judiciary are nominated to the Supreme Court by the president. The president is elected by all registered voters.
In Section 4. Of Article 2 we learn that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” It took some time for the framers to agree upon this language.
As a country, we find ourselves launched on such a question since the U.S. House of Representatives opened an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, September 24, 2019. James Madison’s own notes taken at the Constitutional Convention show us at least his perspective on impeachment:
“Mr. Madison thought…. “He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers. The case of the Executive Magistracy was very distinguishable, from that of the Legislature or of any other public body, holding offices of limited duration. It could not be presumed that all or even a majority of the members of an Assembly would either lose their capacity for discharging, or be bribed to betray, their trust. Besides the restraints of their personal integrity & honor, the difficulty of acting in concert for purposes of corruption was a security to the public. And if one or a few members only should be seduced, the soundness of the remaining members, would maintain the integrity and fidelity of the body. In the case of the Executive Magistracy which was to be administered by a single man, loss of capacity or corruption was more within the compass of probable events, and either of them might be fatal to the Republic.”
At this point, impeachment of the president is in inquiry stages, and a great deal of information is being gathered, witnesses called, and tensions ratcheting. A parallel inquiry is still underway, related to the Mueller Report, but seeking to understand from it just which foreign nation(s) may seek to undermine the 2020 national election. Rarely has there been so much upheaval in our country and operational risks abound. Evidence grows each day that the president of the United States has probably never read either the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
The words, “A republic, if you can keep it…” was Benjamin Franklin’s answer at the end of the Constitutional Convention, when he was asked “What have you wrought?”
And we plan to keep it.
Originally published in ASA News & Notes October 14, 2019