Something that was running through my mind this morning as I was slogging through a 9 mile run followed by a 2.6 mile hike with my wife, my two dogs and my daughter’s dog – the Constitution is actually two documents contained on one piece of parchment.
The first is the legal document, the law of the land. While the respect for this aspect has declined with as progressivism has risen, it is the clear language of the Constitution that defines our national government and which powers it has – and more importantly, which powers it does not have, which are reserved for the several states, and the people.
The second is the ASPIRATIONAL document – and this is something rarely discussed but at least as important as the legal dimensions of the Constitution.
What I mean when I say it is an “aspirational document” is this: the Founders knew America was an imperfect nation because it consisted of imperfect people. The recent discussion of the Confederacy and slavery once again brings focus to the debate over slavery that raged as the foundation of our country was being laid.
One argument often heard is that since the Founders didn’t abolish slavery in the Constitution, the lofty ideas in the Declaration of Independence – and those in the Constitution itself – are all lies and America’s founding is illegitimate.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, I disagree.
The framers of the Constitution, intent on making a new government, did leave important questions of equality and fairness unanswered. The leaders of the colonies were more interested in getting a government in place and a debate over slavery at that point would have almost guaranteed that any sort of common government would be impossible – so they did the next best thing. They laid down a set of guiding principles for all Americans to aspire to and left it to future generations so sort it out.
Notice that they could have directed government to fix all the ills of America – but they didn’t give it that power. They knew, as all rational people know, that government cannot address one issue without creating another – but people, working together to change hearts and minds, can.
Did America live up to the ideals of the Declaration and Constitution at the time of founding – no. Have we at any time in between – the best answer I have is that we are trying. We’ve made progress and we have had setbacks but the important thing to remember is that we have the freedom to keep trying. We may not hit a home run every time at bat but America keeps swinging. We continue to aspire to the ideals the Founders put in front of us.
President Calvin Coolidge said:
“To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”
Silent Cal was famous for understatement – of all of his quotes, perhaps this is the greatest understatement of all.