Today we celebrate the 226th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution — a document which sure takes a beating.
Some folks like to wave it around in defense of whatever particular stance they’re taking, and others like to trample on it when it doesn’t comport with their view of the world:
But here’s a dirty little secret: Many of us don’t really know what it says.
Like our old friend Barney Fife, we might not have read it since high school and simply can’t remember that far back.
If that’s not you, you’ll be confident in passing this Constitutional quiz. But if you don’t fare too well, not to worry. You’re in good company.
Here’s Speaker of the House John Boehner, holding up a pocket-size pamphlet at a 2010 Tea Party rally in Ohio (as quoted by Jill Lepore in her New Yorker piece on the Constitutions and its worshippers, “The Commandments“):
This is my copy of the Constitution. And I’m going to stand here with the Founding Fathers, who wrote in the preamble, ‘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 including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
Actually, that’s the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
Boehner’s not alone, Lepore adds. There’s plenty we claim is right there that’s simply not:
“Find It in the Constitution,” the Tea Party rally signs read. Forty-four hundred words and “God” is not one of them, as Benjamin Rush complained to John Adams, hoping for an emendation: “Perhaps an acknowledgement might be made of his goodness or of his providence in the proposed amendments.” It was not. “White” isn’t in the Constitution, but Senator Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, was still sure that the federal government was “made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” What about black men? “They are not included, and were not intended to be included,” the Supreme Court ruled, in 1857. Railroads, slavery, banks, women, free markets, privacy, health care, wiretapping: not there. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that gives the Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court the right to declare that white and colored children must attend the same public schools,” Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi, said, after Brown v. Board of Education. “Have You Ever Seen the Words Forced Busing in the Constitution?”read a sign carried in Boston in 1975. “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Christine O’Donnell asked Chris Coons during a debate in October. When Coons quoted the First Amendment, O’Donnell was flabbergasted: “That’s in the First Amendment?” Left-wing bloggers slapped their thighs; Coons won the election in a landslide. But the phrase “separation of church and state” really isn’t in the Constitution or in any of the amendments.
So lunchtime today might just be a good time to pause and relearn what we thought we already knew — if only to avoid embarrassment.
Here’s a quick primer on how the Constitution came into being:
Want to know exactly what it says? Read it here. At forty-four hundred words (without amendments), it’s not a long read.
And want to learn more about how the Constitution is faring here, some 226 years later? Watch the trailer below, a preview to the wonderful PBS series “Constitution USA,” which first aired in May 2013.