After a long, hot, summer 225 years ago on September 17, 1787, a group of men signed their names to the document that would give structure to the fledgling United States: the Constitution. After an early attempt, the Articles of Confederation, had been abandoned, the nation’s founders decided to craft a completely new document, which they did in four months.
Constitution Day is a chance to reflect upon this achievement and consider how the Constitution is relevant today, as James S. Sherman Professor of Government Phil Klinkner, Assistant Professor of Government Gbmende Johnson, and Visiting Assistant Professor of History John Ragosta did during an hour-long panel discussion on Sept. 17. Speakers touched on the history of Constitution Day, as well as an exploration of the Constitution’s language on religious freedom, and offered some thoughts on future amendments to the document.
Klinkner began the panel with remarks on the origins of Constitution Day, which has existed in several different guises since the early 20th century. It was originally devised as a way to instill American values in new citizens and immigrants, and it was championed by a group known as the National Security League—of which Elihu Root was a member—who saw the Constitution as the “best and only defense” against foreign political ideologies.
In a slightly different guise, Constitution Day was later used as a protest against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was seen to betray the spirit of the Constitution with “socialist” tendencies. It was only in 2004, however, after Senator Robert Byrd passed a bill mandating that all federally-funded educational institutions must offer constitution-related programming on the day, that Constitution Day assumed its current form.
Its checkered past may raise more eyebrows than flags, but Klinkner sees Constitution Day’s history as an example of the American political culture. “It’s important when looking at Constitution Day to see that the Constitution has always been politicized by both sides,” he said.
Ragosta offered the next reflection on the Constitution, which drew on material from his upcoming book Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, which will be published by the University of Virginia Press in 2013. Ragosta focused on the evolution of the First Amendment, specifically the clause that prohibits the formation of a national religion.
Originally, James Madison inserted language that prevented both the federal and state governments from establishing a religion, but in the final version, only the federal government was restrained. Despite Madison’s original attempts, much of the Constitution’s final language on religious freedom, Ragosta said, was due to Thomas Jefferson’s influence. “If you wanted to understand religious freedom [in the 18th century],” he said, “you looked to Jefferson.”
Johnson was the last professor to speak, but offered the most forward-looking topic of the evening: what could future changes to the Constitution look like? In its more than 200 years of existence, the Constitution has only been altered 27 times. Johnson explained that this is not surprising—the founders didn’t want the Constitution to be changed “willy-nilly.” Yet Johnson also observed the need to “think creatively about the Constitution.”
To that end, she suggested two possible future amendments based around what she sees as impending problems in the American political arena. The first is a disproportionately high rate of open federal judicial posts. Although there are plenty of available judges to fill these empty seats—some of which have been empty for seven years—candidates must be appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, a problematic process that is essentially, in Johnson’s words, “a power struggle over who does judicial nominations.”
Johnson suggested amending the Constitution to institute a new judicial selection process by having a bipartisan commission appoint judges to be approved by the president, which would theoretically reduce the factional discord inherent in the process.
The other issue Johnson identified is the inability of some poor and elderly voters to vote because they lack photographic identification, which many of them either don’t need or can’t afford. What this amounts to, in Johnson’s opinion, is a poll tax. She called for an amendment to institute a universally recognized form of voter identification that would be affordable to all voters.
Johnson admitted, however, that given the history of Constitutional amendment, the “likelihood of that [these amendments] happening is basically zero.”
After the speakers finished, Klinkner opened the floor to questions. When the panel was asked how the founders themselves would view Constitution Day, Ragosta speculated on Jefferson’s opinion. “Jefferson would have been flabbergasted [that the Constitution still existed],” Ragosta said. “He would have asked, ‘you couldn’t come up with anything better?’”