The Constitution as the Guiding Principle of the United States

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: AMERICA'S FOUNDING FATHERS

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The Constitution of the United States occupies the foremost central place in the public lives of Americans. Yet, some people believe it has outlasted its usefulness. Let us examine this perception regarding the Constitution.

American leaders against the background of the American flag.
The Constitution of America is the oldest continuously operating instrument of government in the world. (Image: Virrage Images/Shutterstock)

Is the Constitution Still Useful?

In 2012, the New York Times published a lengthy opinion piece by Louis Michael Seidman, Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University, stating that he was tired of the Constitution.

He stated, “Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse.” And that, “Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.”

What professor Seidman said is true. The Constitution is the oldest continuously operating instrument of government in the world. The Constitution was ratified in 1788. Since then, the United States has undergone a Civil War, an unprecedented industrialization that catapulted the nation into being the most productive country in the world, and the emergence of an exceedingly diverse society.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Founders Were Exclusively White and Male

And yet, whenever American society encounters a new problem or some unprecedented crisis, we still go back to it for the answer. As professor Seidman puts it, “A group of white propertied men who have been dead for two centuries, knew nothing of our present situation, acted illegally under existing law and thought it was fine to own slaves.”

George Washington presiding at the Constitution Convention of 1787.
The Constitution Convention was exclusively formed by white males. Neither black people nor women got involved. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In some sense, he is right. We have to consider that the Constitution was shaped exclusively by men; there were no women in the Constitutional Convention, which drafted the document in 1787.

Indeed, no women took part in the Continental Congress, or the Congress based on the Articles of Confederation, which acted as the law of the land from 1781-1788.

Furthermore, we have to take into account those were not ordinary men, but rather the white, Anglo elite who wore knee britches and buckle shoes and wrote with quill pens. It’s only logical to ask how these men exert such a huge influence over a generation six times removed; a generation that sends rovers to Mars, and a society that can’t function without the Internet.

Learn more about Edmund Randolph’s plan.

The Constitution as an Eternal Guide

Two centuries later, the Constitution and its authors are looked upon with the highest veneration. In 1819, only 31 years after the ratification of the Constitution, John Marshal, one of the greatest Chief Justices in US history, asserted that the Constitution would endure for ages to come and has the potential to address various crises of human affairs.

This assertion especially becomes meaningful when we consider that Marshal was a member of the Virginia State Convention responsible for deciding whether Virginia should ratify the Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln and the Constitution

Almost four decades after Marshal, Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow citizens to see the Constitution as a beacon. He encouraged Americans to be “Ever true to Liberty, the Union, and the Constitution, true to Liberty, not selfishly, but upon principle—not for special classes of men, but for all men, true to the Union and the Constitution, as the best means to advance that liberty.”

The rationale behind such a statement is that the Constitution is so perfect a document that it possesses the ability to eternally guide and instruct society.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s reports.

The Difficulty of Making Amendments

No slight occasion should tempt us to touch it. Better not take the first step, which may lead to a habit of altering it. Better, rather, habituate ourselves to think of it as unalterable. It can scarcely be made better than it is.

New provisions would introduce new difficulties and thus create and increase appetite for still further change. New hands have never touched it. The men who made it have done their work and have passed away. Who shall improve on what they did?

Nevertheless, since its ratification, the Constitution has only been amended 27 times. To put that into perspective, consider that the German Federal Republic rewrote its Constitution over 50 times in less than 70 years.

The Constitution was intentionally designed to make any amendment formidably difficult: two-thirds of the National Legislature (both houses of Congress) must approve, and their approval must be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures. And even so, the amendments will not be incorporated into the Constitution’s text but added as separate annexes.

Learn more about John Marshall’s court.

The Document that Shapes Lives

The Constitution shaped the personal lives of the Founding Fathers. Among them were men who simply hated each other like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and men whose long-lasting friendship broke up over it.

Still, some like George Washington and Patrick Henry could disagree violently over the Constitution and keep their private worlds linked. The character flaws and outstanding ideas and ideals of these men shaped their own lives, and whether we like it or not, it continues to shape our lives and the lives of generations to come.

Common Questions about the Constitution as the Guiding Principle of the United States

Q: Were the framers of the Constitution representative of the American population?

No, the Constitution was shaped exclusively by white men. There were no women in the Constitutional Convention that drafted the document in 1787. Moreover, those men were not the ordinary folk, but rather the white, Anglo elite or the aristocracy.

Q: How did Abraham Lincoln view the Constitution?

Abraham Lincoln urged his fellow citizens to see the Constitution as a beacon.

Q:  How did the Founders make it difficult to change the Constitution?

The Constitution was intentionally designed to make any amendment formidably difficult: two-thirds of the National Legislature (both houses of Congress) must approve, and their approval must be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures.

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