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Impedance of the US Constitution

Americans take pride in how their 1787 constitution has shaped their country and the world. The various freedoms — speech, association, religion, and others — enshrined in the document provided a new and beneficial relationship between the citizen and its state. The capability of the citizenry to vote out a foolish or corrupt government was a unique achievement. America truly was the first nation to practice western democracy as we know it today, which helped bring creativity, opportunity, and prosperity to its people. And the principles of this document have found their ways into many other political charters around the world.

But so enthralled are the Americans with their social engineering invention that they tend to readily forget some of the history behind the building of the constitution. When this history is examined a little closer, one realizes that the constitution was not the perfect document created by perfect people in a perfect process.

Even by the world’s standards today, the American colonies were not badly governed by the British. Yes, there were some unfair laws and bad governors, but these conditions still happen in western democracies. Relatively speaking, most Americans of the 1700s had a pretty good society under British rule. And Americans at that time were far from united in their quest for independence from that rule.

While freedom was a keystone in the constitution, about half of the founding fathers were slave owners. The other half did not have the political will to abolish slavery at the birth of this nation. As well, women were to have no roles in government, even as voters. These unprogressive philosophies can only mean the thinking behind the constitution was not as progressive as the myth portrays.

While property rights were better enshrined under American law, there were certainly no property rights for aboriginal Americans whose traditional lands were confiscated for the next century. Another group that had no property rights was the supporters of the British crown, driven from their American wealth to Canada and Britain by unofficial state sanctioned terrorism. These loyalists neither had freedom of political expression nor the right to legally defend themselves while these very freedoms were being drafted into the constitution.

The constitution was not created out of thin air. A lot was borrowed from the British system of governance — and some of this was improved on. One improvement was based on the founding fathers’ disdain for political parties: the electoral college was designed to elect a non-partisan head of state. Yet less than 40 years after the constitution was ratified, political parties became the vehicles for ambitious citizens to be elected as state and national legislators, thus diluting the original intention of this innovative institution.

The drafting of the constitution was not done by independent thinkers coming to a unified and unique conclusion. Expedient deals were struck and compromises were made to bring the 13 states together under one national government. Sound logical philosophy did not always influence the drafting.

Whenever the American constitution has been proffered as the ultimate social engineering tool, all the negative aspects of the building of the American constitution are made forgotten. This creates the illusion of an infallible document, above any serious reproach or criticism. Hence there is no need to discuss alternative models of governance that have different processes to elect public officials and give them different tools to make public decisions. How will we in the 21st century ever be able to move past this 18th century social invention?

Published on 2012

A Constitutional Blunder

The TDG Essay