US Constitution: A Hinge of Human History

Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar

Most every American is aware of the significance of the date July 4th, 1776. But Yale professor and noted Constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar believes that the date Sept. 17th is even more important.

“You’ve all heard a lot about July 4th, but not enough, it seems to me, about Sept. 17th,” Amar says.

And why is that date so vital? On that day in 1787, our American Constitution came into being.

This week, Amar delivered a standing-room only lecture at the Library of Congress entitled Magna Carta and the American Constitution, one day before the capital’s annual celebration of Constitution Day.

The professor did briefly address the Magna Carta, but the bulk of his remarks centered on the Constitution, which he called “the hinge of human history.”

“At the time of the Constitution there was very little democracy around the planet. There was us, and the British, and the Swiss. Basically, people were groaning in chains. Thugs were in control of the planet. Today, 1/2 of the planet by land is democratic. The world we live in is a world made by America,” Amar said.

He even joked that our time designations B.C. and A.D. refer to that fact. “Before the Constitution and After the Document,” he said, eliciting much laughter from the crowd.

He said people today don’t comprehend how revolutionary the document was. “The very familiarity has blunted their (the creators and signers) audacity,” Amar said.

Amar said the most amazing fact of the Constitution is that it was put to a vote of the people. “The Declaration of Independence is pretty impressive, but it wasn’t put to a vote. In 1776, it was a case of either you are with us or against us. If you weren’t for independence, you either had to leave or shut up,” he explained.

But that wasn’t the case with the Constitution. The vote was preceded by vigorous, vocal debate. “You could say whatever you wanted – like ‘Ben Franklin is a senile old coot’ – and no one could shut you down. Free speech is baked right into our Constitutional Cake,” Amar noted.

But the Constitution is not only a text, it is an ongoing act as well, Amar maintained. “It is a deed. It is a doing,” he said.

“The Constitution is crowd-sourced. It is Wikipedia. Who gave us our Bill of Rights – opponents to the Constitution. For certain things, many heads are better than one,” the professor added.

But despite the brilliance of the document at that time, there was a major flaw. “There was a serpent in the garden and that serpent was slavery,” Amar said.

He noted that the controversial Electoral College – which still exists – was an outgrowth of slavery and the 3/5ths clause, which meant that although slaves could not vote, they could count as 3/5ths of a person when determining the number of representatives a state could have in Congress. Without that compromise, the North would have politically dominated the South.

“Our Constitution was conceived in liberty, but conciliatory to slavery,” Amar said. “It created a system that rewarded slavery and slavery corrupts. It’s a cancer that grows and grows. The system (of united government) fails because of slavery.”

But after the divisive, bloody Civil War, the Constitution was reborn with former male slaves now having the right to vote. “It was a new birth of freedom,” Amar said.”But we were not done in 1867. What about women? Well that came with the 19th Amendment.”

“We are the product today of many generations of Constitutional improvements,” Amar said. “The process is still ongoing. We can ask – what should our Constitution look like 40-score years from now?”

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