Patricia A. O'Malley

Social Policy & Programs Consulting

Training and Services for agencies working toward social and economic justice

Patricia A. O'Malley
Social Policy & Programs Consulting    ~    Community Matters
P.O. Box 97803    ~    Pittsburgh, PA  15227   ~    412-310-4886    ~
Copyright Patricia A. O'Malley    ~    All rights reserved
Established 1993

Happy Constitution Day!
What is It Anyway?  And does it still matter?
​September 13, 2018


Happy Constitution Day!  On September 17, 1787 the United States Constitutional Convention delegates approved their draft of a new Constitution.  Now it’s 231 years later and Americans still don’t know how our government works because our schools teach it wrong.  But everyone keeps hollering at each other.

The U.S. Constitution has been in the news more in the last twenty years than at any time that I can remember.  Is torture legal?  Should we adopt a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage?  How much power does the President have? Can your child’s school principal search her locker, or his backpack?  Who is your representative?  When can you vote for a new one?  What should we do about gun violence?  Few Americans can answer these questions. 

The founders’ first attempt at creating a government in 1781, the Articles of Confederation, didn’t work very well.  So, six years later, they tried again and gave us the United States Constitution.

Fifty-five farmers and businessmen, serving as Constitutional Convention

delegates, contributed their ideas. James Madison and Gouverneur Morris

wrote most of the text – 4,400 words.  The founders didn't want an

intricate daily operating manual. The Constitution is an outline for

our government.  

Madison and Morris deliberately included some very general language.

The Constitution contains three parts – the Preamble, the Articles, and the Amendments.

The Preamble, or introduction, lists the six purposes of the new government:

  1. to form a more perfect union
  2. establish justice
  3. insure domestic tranquility
  4. provide for the common defense
  5. promote the general welfare
  6. and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity

These are big things.  They don’t lend themselves to “small government”.

The seven articles of the body establish the federal government. 
The first three articles create the three branches of our government, and define their powers and duties.

  1. Article I creates Congress, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  2. Article II creates the Presidency.
  3. Article III creates the Supreme Court.
  4. Article IV defines the relationship between the states and the federal government and between the states themselves.
  5. Article V describes four methods of amending, or changing, the Constitution and declares that all amendments are just as valid as the original text.
  6. Article VI provides for payment of the national debt and declares that the Constitution, all laws created through it, and all treaties adopted under it, are the supreme law of the United States.
  7. Article VII requires the states to ratify, or approve, the Constitution.

Amendments are changes, or additions, to the original text. There are 27 amendments. The first ten, the Bill of Rights, guarantee some of our individual rights. Several additional amendments adopted through the years expand on those rights. They include freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and to petition the government, own firearms, rights of the accused in criminal proceedings, rights of parties in civil proceedings, abolishing slavery, voting rights, civil rights, and requiring the states to guarantee those protections too.

The remaining amendments involve governmental management issues such as lawsuits against states, the Electoral College, presidential term limits, presidential disability and succession, Congressional salaries, opening of Congressional sessions, imposing income taxes, and direct popular election of senators.

The founders could have put anything they wanted into it. There were no limits, but there was much debate. In the end, they balanced the power between the federal government and the states, and divided the power among three branches. They created a system called checks and balances. They separated the powers so that no one in the government can gather too much power.

While in Washington D.C. on business a few years ago, I heard a man ask a Capitol Building tour guide where in the Constitution he can find Jesus.  He was aghast to learn that Jesus is not in the Constitution.  Nope.  Nowhere.

The list of things not in the Constitution is particularly interesting:
•        "Jesus", "Christ", "Christian", "god", and "creator"
•         The president and members of Congress are not required to take their oaths of office on a Bible.
•         The First Amendment does not guarantee us the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, on any subject.
•        Jury of our peers
•        Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness
•        Supreme Court rulings on constitutionality
•        Innocent until proven guilty
•         American flag
•        Gold standard
•        Political parties
•        Majority rule
•        Congressional term limits
•        Lobbying
•        Capitalism
•        National anthem
•        Limited government
•        All men are created equal
•         In god we trust
But countless people will swear that they are in there.

Because they haven't read it.
Now, this doesn’t mean that these things are illegal.  It means that the founders didn’t include them.

One clause has served us particularly well.  Article VI states that the Constitution, all laws flowing from it, and all treaties adopted under its authority are the supreme law of our nation.  No state, city, county, school board, license clerk, or judge anywhere in the United States can override it.  We can only change it by amendment, which is a difficult process.

Surely it’s obsolete by now. Do we really still need it?  What’s the point?
People who ask this question usually want to start a fight or are pathetically ignorant.  It matters as long as the United States exists.  Americans still argue about it, file lawsuits about it, claim to love it, and swear to uphold it.  They accuse each other of violating it.  But most have never READ IT.

For better or worse, we still have Congress, a president, and courts.  We usually follow the rules for managing our government.  While various forces try to demolish our rights, we still manage to hold on.
We need it because it tells us how to run our government.

The Constitution works for all of us, every day.  Every law must be constitutional – even your local parking ordinances.  You can vote because the constitution says so.  You can speak at your school board meeting.  You pay taxes because the constitution says so.  You can attend any church you wish, or none at all.  You can read any book or newspaper, or none at all.  You can criticize the government because the Constitution says you can.  If you are arrested, you have rights, because the Constitution says so.  And you can influence your government.

The founders didn’t want to be gods or dictators.  They wanted the country to be what we want it to be. 

That’s why they used general language and gave us methods to change it.

America has plenty of faults.  It's also a pretty great place to live.
It takes about an hour to read the Constitution, yet few people ever do.
It takes a lifetime to learn it.
So, take an hour. 
Read the Constitution. 
You’ll be glad you did. 

For more information:
U.S. Constitution
Declaration of Independence
Articles of Confederation
Congressional Activity
U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Senate
The White House and Executive Branch
U.S. Federal Court System
​Defective Teaching Methods Produce American Political Ignorance
Why We Need More Lobbyists
Community Matters Civics Quiz

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