Over the past two weeks, my younger daughter has had an interesting assignment in her middle school humanities class. The teacher had the kids reading not only the U. S. Constitution, but also all twenty-six amendments to the Constitution. The kids were then supposed to summarize the meaning of each amendment, and indicate whether the amendment was intended to protect a right, extend a right, or solve a problem.
Since I am the resident historian in the household, my daughter came to me for help when she tried to decipher some of the more complicated amendments. I think she learned a lot from the assignment. I found myself marveling anew at the beauty of the Constitution, not just as a legal document but also as a historical one.
I don’t want this to devolve into a political debate. But I will say up front that I am capable of being as critical of our government as anyone. I am not, nor have I ever been, what my parents would have called “an America-right-or-wrong patriot.” My politics tend to the left. The deep left. I know how deeply flawed our nation’s policies, foreign and domestic, can be. That said, I absolutely do consider myself a patriot. I think it is impossible to overstate the beauty of our system of government — perhaps not the actual government as it exists today, but the blueprint itself. The Constitution is an elegant and deceptively simple document. The men who conceived it were navigating uncharted waters and yet manage to create something that was both innovative and flexible. Yes, these men were flawed in some of their own thinking; they could not see past the limited race and gender sensitivity of their time. And yet they penned a document that allowed us as a people to evolve and adapt and redress past wrongs.
Yes, some of the wording is a little iffy; the Yoda-esque phrasing of the Second Amendment remains at the heart of one of the nation’s most contentious social issues. Still, what amazes me is how relevant the document remains despite the staggering changes this nation and this world have witnessed in the last 225 years. If James Madison were to step into our time, he would be utterly bewildered by our gadgets, our communications system, our transportation technologies. He might well be dismayed by some of what he would see in Washington — the campaign money, the lobbyists, the mediocre minds sitting in some seats on both sides of the Congressional aisle. As a former slave-owner, he would no doubt be rendered speechless upon learning that an African-American man is President. But once inside the House or Senate chamber, he would have no trouble at all recognizing the government that he helped shape. That strikes me as remarkable.
And were he to read through the amendments passed during the last two centuries, he might begin to piece together elements of our tumultuous history. Reading the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, with their references to slavery and race, rebellion and insurrection, he might well realize that the bitter debate over slavery had finally culminated in a bloody internecine conflict. Reading the Prohibition amendments (numbers Eighteen and Twenty-one) he might be able to picture a nation deeply torn by questions of morality. Reading amendments Seventeen (direct election of Senators), Nineteen (women’s suffrage), and Twenty-four (elimination of the poll tax) he would see that Americans in the Twentieth Century were striving in their own way to make this country a truer democracy. And perhaps, reading the long, convoluted language of the Twenty-fifth amendment (Presidential succession, passed in 1967), he would understand that the nation had been through a searing tragedy — the death of a young President — that shook our confidence, and forced us to consider dark possibilities that hadn’t occurred to earlier generations.
It has become a cliche to call the Constitution a living, breathing document, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It is meant to adapt, to reflect changes in our thinking and the maturation of our ideals. But it also reflects who we are and where we have been. I’m grateful to my daughter’s teacher for giving her students — as well as their parents — the opportunity to study and appreciate it.