Civil and Human Rights

Remembering our Imperfect Constitution

With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up this Monday, January 17th, Americans across the country will be celebrating the birth of the great civil rights leader and also enjoying a three-day weekend.  But this weekend also brings us another important, albeit far less happy, moment in our Nation’s history, as Sunday, January 16th, just happens to be the 92d anniversary of the ratification of the 18th Amendment  — Prohibition.  (Didn’t you have this on your Outlook calendar too?)

The Framers of our Constitution wisely included a process by which the document could be amended, a reason that the Constitution has endured as our Nation’s governing charter more than two centuries after it was first written.  Indeed, the original Constitution, as progressive as it was for its time, was seriously flawed, among other things condoning slavery.  Since the Founding, “We the People” have amended the Constitution 27 times, improving our “imperfect” union by expanding democracy and individual rights, incorporating into the Constitution the soaring principles of liberty and equality set out in the Declaration of Independence.

The 18th Amendment, however, is an outlier in the constellation of Amendments –  imposed in a fit of moralizing and immediately unpopular, it is the only Amendment that took away individual rights.  But thanks to the very same amendment process that gave us Prohibition, “We the People” were able to correct this constitutional misstep, repealing the 18th Amendment 15 years later, through the ratification of the 21st Amendment.

So what’s my point?  Simply that we do ourselves a disservice as a Nation if we forget our history, if we forget that our Constitution has never been a perfect document.

Last week, when the Constitution was read aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives, the GOP leadership declined to allow the entire Constitution to be read, omitting portions that were repealed or considered to have been superseded, including the fugitive slave clause, the abhorrent provision added by the “three-fifths compromise,” and the 18th Amendment.  House leaders were promptly criticized for presenting America with a sanitized Constitution, glossing over the fallibility of the Framers as well as the progressive arc of our constitutional history.

The 18th Amendment was a rare detour from that progressive arc, but the course was soon corrected.   And so, on January 17th, when we raise a glass to toast Dr. King’s extraordinary life and contributions, we will all be able to do so with the beverage of our choice.  Our imperfect Constitution has simply gotten more perfect over time.

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