An Imperfect Constitution

For those who imagine the original Constitution was perfect or nearly perfect, two examples to consider:

1. Slavery is the most obvious way in which the Constitution was far from perfect. For a nation predicated on liberty, a founding document that protected hereditary chattel slavery constitutes a huge injustice. To the extent that the preservation of slavery was a compromise, it is one that prioritized a particular political arrangement over the elimination of life-long human bondage. Of course, there was plenty of pressure upon the Constitutional authors to leave slavery in place. From a secular standpoint it is easy to see why it was maintained, though it is difficult to accept as a divinely inspired act.

2. For a more mundane example, consider the original mode of electing the President and Vice President. Originally each member of the Electoral College casts two votes, with the person who received the second-most votes becoming the vice president. In 1796 the problems with this became clear when Thomas Jefferson became the vice president to his rival John Adams. Four years later Aaron Burr, running as Jefferson’s vice presidential candidate, nearly became president because their Electors had voted for them as a pair, producing a tie in the Electoral College. The problem was cleared up in 1804 with the 12th Amendment.

In this case, there was no great pressure to create such an election process. I suppose in a reasonably united political atmosphere it made sense that a first place finisher would gain the presidency and the second place vote-getter would fill the vice presidency. But there had been political factions before and it shouldn’t have been difficult to imagine that the first and second place finishers in a contest for the presidency would be bitter rivals. Other elements of the Constitution were designed to channel such ‘interest’ for the good of the nation; that’s part of how it survived the rise of political parties. But this particular element of the Constitution was simply poorly conceived.

With such large and small shortcomings (and these are but two examples), I find it difficult to imagine the Constitution as anything approaching a ‘perfect’ document. That doesn’t mean that it should be tossed out or ignored. Quite the contrary. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment is that it has laid the groundwork for its own correction. The presidential election process was easily changed. The Constitution survived the Civil War alongside the Union and both became ‘more perfect’ with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Since then 12 additional amendments have been passed and the daily meaning changed in a host of ways, many of which make for a more free and just society. The Constitution has survived not because it is a perfect document that has outlasted the forces arrayed against it but because it is an imperfect document that nonetheless allows for improving change.

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