If the phrase in the title rings a bell, but you can’t quite place it, here’s its’ larger context: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union….”; i.e. the opening sentence of the Preamble to the US Constitution. That six-word phrase is remarkable for what it tells us about the authors, the signees, as well as their extraordinary achievement and disappointing failures.
The authors and signators were men of great humility and foresight; especially the former. Notice their agreement that they were forming “…a more perfect union”, not “the perfect union”. What a difference that one word makes in guiding us to the recognition that our Founders knew that this magnificent Constitution was, in reality, a work-in-progress with imperfections that would eventually need to be addressed. Glaringly obvious among those flaws were these two: the status of the slaves and the voting rights of women.
The Founders consciously evaded the question of granting full personhood to the slaves because that would have accorded to them, freedom and equal rights. To secure the signatures of the representatives from the slaves states, a compromise was reached whereby the slaves were to be treated as 3/5 of a person. This kept the slaves in place as indentured servants and thus bolstered the economies of the southern states that had become dependent on this form of cheap labor. In moral terms, it was the equivalent of a “deal with the devil” and it took over 150 years to undo it.
Tragically, the voting rights of women didn’t even muster up the level of debate and bargaining that accompanied the treatment of the slaves. The Framers made little if any effort to guarantee that right in the Constitution and apparently decided to leave the issue up to individual states. The matter languished there until the late 1800’s when a significant suffragette movement began to arise. Even then, it was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment gained the support of two-thirds of the states to insure its ratification.
Now we come to the Founding Fathers’ foresight. Obviously, they could not have seen coming all that has transpired in the 220+ years’ life of our country. But, they had a keen understanding of the rights of the individual and how important it was to uphold them if our nation was to come together and prosper. Those rights became enshrined in our first ten amendments; what we now refer to as the “Bill of Rights”. In this same context, there was the recognition that every person had the right to worship a deity of their own choice, or to worship no deity at all. So, with great care, sectarian references were completely omitted from the Constitution with more generic, secular terms used instead. Earlier, I had blogged on this topic and would refer interested readers back to my “Was the US Founded as a Christian Nation?”. Find that title to the left of this new blog and click on it for access.
Finally, there is this to be said: Our Constitution was crafted not just as a work-in-progress, but as an undertaking full of compromises. As is the case with the latter, no one got everything that they wanted. This raises such pertinent questions as “What was left out?” and “What were the ‘half-measures?” With these queries at hand, how are we to know the Framers’ original intentions and whether they were fully met? This cuts to the heart of the divide between those who hold to a strict interpretation of the Constitution and those who see it as a document open to interpretation. The groups on the two sides of that divide will be the subject of a future blog.
Happy new year everyone.