This coming week marks the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. This is the oldest and shortest written Constitution of any major government in the world. It may only have 4,400 words, but it is safe to say that this document probably has more influence on our daily lives than anything else.
The Constitution was written to guarantee the freedoms which American colonists fought, sacrificed and died to establish. Basically, it protects us from the abuse of power by government bodies. This is something which is close to home for me as my mom is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR is a non-profit, women’s organization for the descendants of individuals who aided in achieving American independence.
Most of us are familiar with the Constitution; however, there are also many common misconceptions about what it really says. Because of my mom’s involvement with the DAR, this is something which has been emphasized to me for many years. The yearly commemoration of the Constitution’s signing provides an excellent time to talk about some of these misconceptions. The Constitution was designed to empower us so the more we know, the more power we have.
For example, did you know that the Constitution does not actually include the words “freedom of expression?” In fact, over time, it has been ruled to include limits to the freedom of speech, press and assembly for instances such as defamation, perjury, hate speech, noise pollution and classified information. Even these basic rights have some exceptions.
In addition, the words “innocent until proven guilty” are also not included. The 5th amendment does state that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law” and also protects us from double jeopardy or incrimination. However, “innocent until proven guilty,” is a concept which was derived from English common law and has simply been adopted as part of our common law today.
Another interesting part of the Constitution is that it never clearly ensures us the “right to vote.” Yet, it does state that we cannot be denied the right to vote because of race or gender. The 26th amendment requires that people of 18 years or older must be able to vote, however states can allow persons younger to vote if they chose. Other qualifications for voters are also left to the states, as long as they do not conflict with any part in the Constitution. For instance, in some states, felons who are in prison or on probation are denied the right to vote.
It is fascinating to note that the equal rights amendment which states that equal rights shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex, was never ratified in the United States. It was proposed in 1972 however not enough states approved it. This was mainly because the process of equal rights was already in practice for both men and women.
As the years go on, it is important to remember where our country began and what we can continue to learn from it. Times have changed but the words written in the Constitution are just as relevant today as they were in 1787. Let us celebrate Constitution Week by resolving to be better-informed and responsible citizens of America. After all, how can we defend our rights if we do not know what they are?