LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD:
For many Americans, when the term “amendment” is mentioned, our United States Constitution often comes to mind. Among the document’s twenty-seven, most are aware of the First Amendment, especially the part about free speech. Another popular amendment is the Second Amendment: the right to bear arms. These Amendments to our United States Constitution have even gained nicknames such as “1A” and “2A.”
Unfortunately, beyond the popular terms of our national Constitution, too little understanding exists about it, including reasons for limiting changes to the document. This is true as well for our state constitutions, though amended more often. Unless a major news story runs where a constitutional topic goes viral, little more is studied to gain a complete context especially for the true meaning and history behind the Framers’ intentions.
No doubt, words have consequences. Our Founders knew changes to the United States Constitution would be necessary, and carefully thought through how these changes should be accomplished.
For example, they understood the wording in the Declaration of Independence “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” foreshadowed and necessitated an eventual end to slavery.
The process the founders set up to change the Constitution is grounded in the knowledge that passions of the moment can often lead to self-destructive acts. The founders were students of history, and understood that well-intentioned appearances, as if modern or forward looking, may invite a repeat of proven failures. An obvious example of this type of repetition is found in the popular sentiment of some of today’s younger generation to “try” socialism in America, an idea only deemed positive for those who do not study socialism’s history.
There is much confusion and misunderstanding about our U.S. Constitution. Some advocate getting rid of it or overhauling it to the point of unrecognition.
Discernment From History
How much should our national, United States Constitution get amended? How often should state constitutions be amended? The answer lies in world history.
America’s Founders were so well read, so thoroughly studied in world history that they understood what worked in governments and what did not, what caused governments to rise or fall. They saw patterns, consistencies resulting from choices regardless of where attempted in the world. Each would have a positive or negative end based on natural, immutable truths. For example, they learned that power must be divided among the people. They learned why power in the hands of a few created tyrannies, but allowing for many governments would divide power broadly and let the people be their own government. This also let the people protect themselves from the government they elected.
The 27 amendments in nearly 232 years since the signing of our United States Constitution reveals few revisions. It sets up a foundation for a national government to preserve the workings of each individual state, with their own governing bodies, while uniting the states as one nation.1
Our states, for the most part, used their early adopted constitutions to set up a basic form of government. Later state constitutions received more ability to make amendments due to amendment processes added.
The State Constitutions Project conducted with the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Economics Department of the University of Maryland through the office of Professor John Wallace cites there have been nearly 150 state constitutions, amended roughly 12,000 times, with both constitutions and amendments containing about 15,000 pages.2
Any time amendments to our national Constitution or state constitutions are suggested, serious consideration must be given. Learned history rewards its students with discernment. So what will the altering of words of our national and state constitutions truly mean and what consequences will come as a result of changes made?
States grapple over whether to amend their constitutions regardless of method. Legislatures recognize that making changes might conflict with designing appropriate laws regarding public safety or health.3 The more amendments are made, the more difficult it is constitutionally to respond with what lawmaking citizens really want. Difficulties arise in having to work around expanding changes that should be made through the legislative process with voter participation. Continual changes to a state constitution turns a framework for governing into muddied, burdensome, unnavigable waters without clear boundaries from which to design or maintain representative government.
How the amendments affect state and local governing over time, and especially impact the ability of citizens to remain involved in their own government, must carry the weight of steady caution for the states. The more changes, the more difficult it can be, more convoluted, quickly turning accountability and control by the governed into control of the governed.
When the early American governing foundation was formed, voters agreed to abide by it, doing what provides stability among the systems formed and approved by both those in leadership and those who would be governed by it. The system was formed where those in leadership would have to abide through positions of serving, by their own very laws. At least, it is supposed to be that way if we maintain it. Within these foundations the people protect their own freedom, including their own government by adopting societal, bedrock standards that work and holding to them.
Without knowing whether Americans born after our Founders would hold onto what was started for the very lives of those who would come behind them, “ourselves and our posterity,” our founders risked their own lives and fortunes to produce the United States Constitution. Believing it so crucial to accomplish, they placed in its Preamble to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” so that the words of the entire document would do so for every American. They knew some changes might be needed, but argued over, and crafted with great caution, a document that could withstand errant people. It is so good a national constitution that it is the oldest, still operating constitution in existence in the world.
Risking everything while depending on a growing nation to hold onto religion and morality, the Constitution Framers worked hard to design a document that would stand the test of time for Americans to keep their republic because it would take a moral people to maintain a country based on free will of the individual. Any other adopts a tyranny, meaning control over each individual’s choices so that people become as property, disposable, viewed with little to no value. This is what America’s Founders wanted to avoid, aiming not to repeat what they escaped. With that warning in mind, they based the Constitution upon lasting institutions, first principles which are never outdated.
Our national Constitution is not a document to be worshiped since it was crafted by fallible people. It is, however, an integral part of America’s history potent today because of the governing stability it provides. It deserves preserving as a solid foundation to protect Americans today from falling into the public policy traps it was written to prevent. America takes this for granted at her own peril.
Our nation works because of the type of Constitution we have adopted as a country and because of the type of government it sets up for our states and especially for each, individual American. These are worth preserving and only altering with the utmost care and discretion.
Amanda Hughes serves as Outreach Director, and 90 Day Study Director, for Constituting America. She is author of Who Wants to Be Free?, and a story contributor for the anthologies Loving Moments, and Moments with Billy Graham.
Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!
Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.
1Jennie Drage Bowser. “Constitutions: Amend With Care” State Legislatures Magazine, Sept. 2015.
2John Joseph Wallis, NBER/University of Maryland State Constitution Project. www.stateconstitutions.umd.edu
3Garner, James Wilford. “Amendment of State Constitutions.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 1, no. 2, 1907, pp. 213–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1944385.