^ our Constitution : the nation’s teacher — and its safe harbor to which we all sail course

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Having today finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s admirable biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, I am moved to discourse again upon my own views about our nation’s Constitution. I have written of this subject before. You can read my earlier essay here : In that column I spoke a lot about Mr. Justice Brennan and his view that the Constitution expands organically as the nation expands that it guides. I wrote there that the Constitution expands not the powers it grants but the subjects to which it applies. That was good, as far as it went. I see nothing that I wrote there that needs taking back. Today, however, I wish to speak of the Constitution from another perspective entirely. I want to speak of it as the nation’s teacher, its political headmaster, and — a corollary — a kind of destination toward which the nation and its people sail course.

Much of the Constitution is a kind of operating manual. That’s the part of it that I wrote about before. Yet most of the Constitution’s Amendments aren’t so much operational as statements of principle. And here, in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments in particular, we meet the Constitution as teacher and as destination. The principles set forth are momentous. Nothing petty about them : freedom of speech, of religion, of the right to peaceably assemble; freedom from quartering of soldiers; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; guarantees of due process and rights to jury trial; freedom from cruel and unusual punishments; guarantees that every American citizen is a citizen of both his State and the nation; entitling him to all the privileges and immunities granted by any state; birthright citizenship; guarantee of equal protection of the laws, of State and nation; voting rights not to be denied on account of sex; and the application of all of these to all.

Everyone who reads the history of our nation since the years that these Amendments were adopted knows that the ink on parchment by which they were written down in no way assured that the principles therein would take universal effect easily or soon. None did. All required decades of conflict. Some required strife amidst violence by those who resisted. I needn’t elaborate the events we have read of, or participated in. My purpose here is to illustrate the situation created by the principles enunciated in a document we all profess to honor.

Holmes, in most of his Supreme Court rulings and dissents, always insisted on the principlar nature of our Constitution. Decisions in favor of actual litigants were to match Constitutional guarantees with facts on the ground. People at the bar of his Court — individually or as the citizenry of a State or city — were not to have their better life barred by logic but enabled by common sense : and to him, the great Constitutional principles — including those in the “operating manual” — expressed the common sense of political mankind. If not, how were they to be understood by common people ? And understood by all, they had to be, or the Constitution and the nation it guided risked a permanent class of the dissatisfied, the not understanding, or the not accepting.

As I have written to a dear friend, I see these great statements of sweeping principle as instruction given to us, the Constitution as the nation’s teacher. As I further wrote, I also see the great Amendments as a kind of harbor toward which our national boat sails, we being its helmsmen and crew. We were settled by immigrants brought here by ship (even the slaves came here thus albeit against their will), and ion important ways, that — the coming to an idealized, dreamt-of nation by ship — is our essential national experience. America did not exist when the first ships brought our first forbears here. It would  be no lie to say that America still doesn’t fully exist. In that sense, we are all — and I do mean ALL — immigrants coming by ship to a fully realized America, the America written in the Constitution’s great statements of principle.

Mel King, who galvanized so much of Boston when he ran for mayor in 1983, liked to say, “we came on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” He meant simply that we have to work together, and so we do. Yet as I see it, we have more work than : striving toward being who we say we are. The Constitution has settled the question of which principles we are committed to. The wars that were fought to settle it have been fought, and the debates in Congress and in our elections have been debated. The nation is clear on which harbor we are headed to. The Constitution beckons us to plot a correct course and to build a ship that can get us there, that can withstand storms and tides, fair weather and foul. I think that if we see the Constitution in this light, we’ll be a lot clearer about which duties we have as citizen crew aboard what kind of political ship.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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