Civil and Human Rights

A Time To Celebrate the Constitution—All of It

On September 17, 1787, the nation’s Framers signed their names to the new national charter they had just drafted — what would become the United States Constitution.  And so each September we celebrate this important anniversary, marking the day when our Founding Fathers signed the document that gave birth to our system of government and has governed our country in the more than 200 years since. 


But as we celebrate this significant anniversary, we should also remember the many other anniversaries that are an important part of our Constitution’s story—anniversaries of the constitutional amendments that have helped to fully realize the Framers’ goal, made explicit in the document itself, to “establish Justice,” to “promote the general Welfare,” and “to form a more perfect Union.”  Among other things, these amendments are what prohibit the government from interfering with our freedom of speech; they are what protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures; and they are what guarantee that all persons are equal under the law.


The Constitution we celebrate today and this week is as much a product of these anniversaries as it is the one that we mark by celebrating Constitution Week.  And that is why it is so important to remember that our nation’s constitutional history did not end in September 1787, or even when that original document was ratified by New Hampshire (the ninth state to do so) and became officially established the following year. 


The importance of our continuing constitutional story is sometimes ignored even by those who should most remember it—the members of the Supreme Court who have foremost authority and responsibility for interpreting the Constitution and for “say[ing] what the Law is.”  Two years ago, for example, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, concluding that the “‘Act imposes current burdens’” and could not “‘be justified by current needs.’”  Writing for the Court’s conservative bloc, Chief Justice Roberts gave astonishingly short shrift to the Fifteenth Amendment, the one that guarantees the fundamental right to vote and gives Congress the authority to enact laws, like the VRA, designed to enforce that right.  Reading the Court’s opinion and its lengthy discussion of state sovereignty, one might almost be forgiven for concluding that our country’s constitutional history ended long before the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment.  But, of course, it did not.


And that is why on the anniversary of the signing of the original document in 1787, we should also remember other important constitutional anniversaries that are either upon us or coming up, starting with the 150th anniversaries of the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which were adopted in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively.  The ratification of these Reconstruction Amendments marked what is often called our nation’s “Second Founding.”  After years of bloody Civil War, the nation came together and began the long struggle to redeem itself from the Framers’ original sin of slavery.  While that long struggle continues today, the adoption of the Reconstruction Amendments marked an important first step on the path to realizing the “new birth of freedom” that President Lincoln promised at Gettysburg.


Among other things, the Reconstruction Amendments abolished slavery, provided that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws,” and affirmed that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race.”  These Amendments also gave Congress the power to “enforce” their promises by “appropriate legislation,” marking a profound shift in the relationship between the federal government and the states and giving to the federal government important new powers that it has used to help realize the original Framers’ vision of a “more perfect Union.”


So as we celebrate Constitution Week and mark the important events that took place in Philadelphia 228 years ago, we should also remember that the Constitution has many anniversaries.  And each of those anniversaries provides an additional reminder of the importance of our Constitution and the values—such as equality and due process under law—that it reflects.  Our Constitution would not be what it is today were it not for the many Amendments that have been added since September 17, 1787, so as we set aside this week to honor and celebrate the Constitution, we should be sure to celebrate the entire document, not just the part the Framers signed on September 17.

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