It’s Constitution Day! Okay – so we don’t get out of work or school today, nor do we get to barbeque our favorite foods or watch giant things go boom in the night sky, but is today any less important than Independence Day? Memorial Day? Veterans Day? To put it quite simply, the answer is no. Constitution Day is just as important as any other holiday, and we at the ACLU of Ohio are here to tell you why.
Constitution Day celebrates what is one of the most important documents in our nation’s history. 232 years ago, 39 revolutionists finally decided to come together and sign the Constitution (which had been drafted earlier that year in May), and it started like this:
"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
This seems pretty simple, right? According to this introduction, this document should bring peace and tranquility all across the nation while guaranteeing rights for every single citizen, right? …Right?
Again, the answer is no.
It is no secret that the Constitution signed on that fateful day of September 17, 1787 was highly flawed. It denied women and minorities, especially black individuals, their basic human rights for decades to come. It protected slavery. It denied civil liberties that should have been guaranteed to all. To be 100% honest, when it all boiled down, the only people who were guaranteed their civil liberties were white men who were all extremely similar to the white men who blotted the Constitution with their very important signatures.
In fact, those in politics and government – and quite honestly, even everyday people – knew just how flawed the Constitution was. Individual rights were not specified for anyone past propertied white men, and even Thomas Jefferson argued that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general, or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference”. That’s why just two years and 81 days after it was signed, ten amendments were added. Within these ten amendments, civil rights and liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, protest, and press were guaranteed, and protections of privacy, due process of law, and power were also outlined. These amendments are what we so lovingly call the Bill of Rights today.
BUT – and this is a huge but – did that mean the inherent flaws were fixed? Were women and minorities finally granted their rights and brought under the umbrella of the Constitution?
Sadly, once again, the answer is… no.
So… the question you may be asking is why? Why are we celebrating a document that was so flawed? Why are we, especially an organization such as the ACLU of Ohio, celebrating something that initially denied civil liberties to all women and minorities?
It is because since that day in 1787, men have gone to war against their own brethren in a bloody civil war which resulted in the Thirteenth Amendment. This Amendment ultimately abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. Women valiantly fought and gained their right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment– guaranteeing voter rights for sisters, daughters, and fellow female compatriots indefinitely (though important and unfortunate to note that Asian women weren’t granted their right to vote until 1952, Native American women until 1957, and black women until 1965) Civil rights leaders and supporters put their lives on the line to fight – and ultimately win – against exclusionary voting practices that intended to prevent black individuals from participating in politics. Due to these heroes, we now have the Fifteenth Amendment which prohibits poll tax and other types of taxes that condition the right to vote.
Furthermore, though it was flawed, the Constitution has served as a foundation in support of civil liberties for all throughout our nation’s history – especially in the courts. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia resulted in a nation-altering victory in which the Supreme Court ruled that laws prohibiting interracial marriages were unconstitutional. Just four years prior, the Supreme Court ruled, on the basis of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, that states are required to provide an attorney to defendants who can’t afford one in criminal cases. In 1973, the Supreme Court turned to the Fourteenth Amendment in Roe v. Wade to support the right to privacy in a woman’s personal decision to have an abortion. This same Amendment came to the forefront over four decades later when the Supreme Court decided that due to the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, same-sex couples were to be guaranteed the fundamental right to marry. It is no surprise that this same Amendment also played a huge part in the outcome of Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, again supporting equal protection that is to be guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
And this is exactly why we celebrate Constitution Day – it is exactly why everybody in this nation should celebrate Constitution Day.
Because people bravely fought and have either lost or endangered their lives to make sure everybody can access the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution.
Because people have spent their entire lives to further diminish the flaws the Constitution carries.
Because time and time again, the Constitution has been called to the stand, and it has further guaranteed, the rights of those that it did not initially guarantee.
So though it may be flawed, we the people, have recognized the intentions behind it to find the foundational support to guarantee that everybody be protected and given the same rights equally.
And as we celebrate this day, let’s hope – no, let’s ENSURE, that our current Supreme Court Judges, state and federal legislators, and other government leaders and officials only further our progress towards a flawless Constitution and the perfect union that we dream of – one that, for one hundred years, the ACLU has fought for by protecting and expanding individual rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution. In the end, the future we dare to create, depends on the commitment of all of us, we the people.