WALLY'S WORLD: Constitution works, even if few read it

There’s a painting by an artist whose name escapes me, if I ever knew it, that depicts Christ floating above the Founding Fathers during the signing of our Constitution, his arms outstretched as though blessing the event. It suggests the document was divinely inspired and contains absolute Truths with a capital T.

But alas, contrary to the beliefs of many Tea Party members who might hang copies of this painting in their living rooms, the Constitution may have been a labor of love, but most assuredly it isn’t the word of God. It took a special committee four months to debate and draft the document. Finally, on Sept. 17, 1787, it was polished and read aloud in Independence Hall, where delegates from all the states had gathered to subscribe their names to a new government.

There was little agreement and considerable dissension among those who accepted the thing. Indeed, three of them refused to sign. No lesser figure than Benjamin Franklin had serious reservations but “doubted his own infallibility” and signed it anyway. Many felt the wording was far too complicated. (In part, that’s surely true;  just try to decipher the section on treason.) Patrick Henry said the document was “of such an intricate and complicated nature, no man on earth can know its real operation.”

“No man on earth can know.....” This excludes women, of course. But this was of no consequence because they couldn’t vote anyway.

And neither could Indians nor black men, whether free or slaves. As spelled out in the Constitution, a black man was only three-fifths of a human being. The document also rules that escaped slaves shall be returned to their owner if he wants them back.

The ratification of the work by the various states was, at best, touch and go. Rhode Island, the only state to hold a popular vote on the issue, rejected it. Elsewhere, state delegates voted nay or yea and, in some cases, the constitution passed by only a narrow margin: 89-79 in Virginia, 30-27 in New York.

Nevertheless, it was finally accepted in 1788. At that time, the document didn’t have a Bill of Rights. The first 10 amendments weren’t ratified until December 1791.

Many of the endorsers didn’t seem to hold the original document in particularly high regard. It was shuffled from one place to another, from New York City Hall to the Philadelphia State House to Washington, D.C., and so forth. In the 1820s, someone asked James Madison where it was and he had no idea.

At around 4,400 words, not counting the amendments, it’s one of the shortest constitutions in the world, but few Americans, myself included, have ever read the entire thing. Recently, at the insistence of the Tea Party, it was read aloud in the House of Representatives. This had never been done before. (I suspect some Tea Party members were actually surprised to find what the “God given” document actually said.) Most representatives didn’t stay for the reading.   They had to attend important meetings with lobbyists, over martinis, in the lounge of the Capital Grill.

Before a Tea Party rally in Ohio last year, Speaker of the House John Boehner held up a pocket-sized pamphlet and declared that he always carried a copy of the Constitution. As it turned out, Boehner was confused. It wasn’t the constitution at all, but a copy of the Declaration of Independence.

So it goes.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates