Get to Know What's in the Constitution

BlogHer Original Post

It's election season 2012 in America, kicked off next week with the Republican National Convention in Tampa soon to be followed by the Democratic National Convention the first week in September in Charlotte. Conventions signal that it's coming: the time for the attack ads, the annoying phone calls, the door-to-door voter-signer-uppers and the neighborhood lawn sign wars. It's enough to make you want to hide under the bed until December. But even though there are many parts of this more perfect union that seem cumbersome to me, I have to admit I'm still impressed with the brevity and holistic impressiveness of the United States Constitution.

I was recently sent a copy of The Constitution: The Essential User's Guide, by Richard Stengel, from Time books. It breaks the Constitution down, section by section, with a bit of history and color commentary I really appreciated. I've read the Constitution a kazillion times and even have part of the Bill of Rights on a little metal plate designed to go off in airports before having anything go off in airports got altogether too risky. Are you feeling a little shaky on U.S. government? Here's my breakdown of what I like and what I don't like about our country's One Document to Rule Us All.

The Constitution: The Essential User's Guide

The Constitution: I Like This

  • It's short. Considering our tax code is 3.8 million words, the Constitution is looking pretty compact.

  • It's poetic. I learned from The Essential User's Guide that the framers chose a five-man Committee of Style to actually write the Constitution after they'd sussed out the details. Gouverneur Morris wrote the preamble, which is a beautiful piece of writing that still gives me chills. Also, "Committee of Style" is my new favorite band name of the day.

  • It limits absolute power. Probably because the framers had a bone to pick with their most recent form of government, the monarchy of England, they created the three branches of government as we know them: legislative, executive and judicial.

  • It shows America's growth as a country. It starts out with something I DON'T like -- slavery -- spelling out the statutes allowing for the importation and return to their "owners" of "such persons" who counted as 3/5 of a human with regard to population, and progresses to Amendment XIII in 1865: "Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

    And then, when that didn't seem to be good enough, Amendment XV in 1869: "The rights of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

    And then, the woman's vote, FINALLY in 1919, Amendment XIX: "The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

    And then, back to race, because some states were requiring black voters to pay a "poll tax" in order to vote, Amendment XXIV in 1962: "The rights of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax."

    It is perhaps this paper trail of our country's racist past that makes the fact our sitting president is not white all the more indisputably important.

The Constitution: I Don't Like That

  • It limits power. From The Essential User's Guide: "These checks and balances sometimes frustrate the quick fulfillment of political agendas (good and bad). This is often derided as 'gridlock.' The framers considered gridlock a feature, not a bug. They feared hasty and oppressive government action more than the feared the opposite." - p. 40 When the Constitution was written, there weren't any political parties. Had the framers known about political parties and how they would influence government, I wonder if they would've realized Republicans and Democrats check and balance each other to the point of nothing doing most of the time, anyway.

  • It creates the electoral college. I really, really wish we would get rid of the electoral college and use the popular vote. It would encourage more people to show up, for one thing -- we could at last be assured that every vote truly counted. From The Essential User's Guide: "This convoluted arrangement was arrived at by the framers after lengthy debate over the question of how to select the chief executive. They worried that the American people could not be trusted to make an informed choice about a candidate for the highest national office." - p. 90. WTH, framers?

The best thing I took away from this book was this sentence: "The remedy for bad laws is elections." The low voter turn-out in this country makes me sad, because that statement is absolutely true. I hope we have a record-breaking turnout for this November's election. See you at the ballot box?

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for


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