- Historic Sites
Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
So now, as we approach the Constitution’s two hundredth anniversary and the possibility of a second Constitutional Convention, we must remember that this simple document has stretched to meet all the terrible tests of the past two hundred years. It has proved itself truly a constitution for all seasons. It is one of the foundation stones of our republic.
So, let us approach it, if not with reverence, in the spirit of what statesmanscholar Daniel Moynihan has called “benign neglect,” and what the mad, brilliant, old Virginian, John Randolph of Roanoke, called for—“masterly inactivity.” Lone may it stand.
-Margaret Coit Elwell Biographer and retired Professor of Social Science, Fairleigh Dickinson University.
I particularly revere the Fifth Amendment for its glorious perversity in taking as its principle that the sanctity of the individual is equal to the power of lawful Authority. In stating that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself,” “the Fifth” insists that a witness (as distinct from an accused person who takes the stand) need not speak out to his own detriment in a court of law. However vexing it may be when invoked by known mobsters, the amendment underscores that Authority in this country cannot be capricious or hasty in the exercise of its power.
-Kathleen Brady Author of Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker.
The part of the Constitution that is most important to me is the Tenth Amendment, which makes explicit what is strongly implied in the original text: that the powers delegated to the federal government are all the powers it’s supposed to have. We’ve gone a long way toward making it a dead letter, as the federal government has assumed more and more powers that are clearly contrary to the spirit and structure of the government as outlined in the Constitution. And a dead letter is what the entire document would be if those who proclaim “The Constitution is a living document!” were to have their way completely.
-Alleen S. Kraditor Retired Professor of History, Boston University.
I consider the Fourteenth Amendment the most important part of the Constitution, because it defines American citizenship and provides for equal protection of the laws for all Americans, giving the federal courts and Congress the power to define and enforce these rights. There has been more litigation growing out of the Fourteenth Amendment than any other part of the Constitution. And of course most of the civil rights decisions and legislation of the past forty years have been based on the equal protection clause of that amendment. Without the Fourteenth Amendment, the legal status of black Americans might be very different, and the United States would be a different society.
-James M. McPherson Edwards Professor of American History, Princeton University.
Because the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised and empowered American women, and because it is the only constitutional amendment to date to grant equal rights without regard to gender, it remains a keystone. For me, personally, professionally, politically, it is central. Suffrage was the goal of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the starting point for the Equal Rights Amendment. Most of all, suffrage provided the means for women to move into political roles and to improve our society with their participation.
-Elisabeth Griffith Author of In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.