“As the 1790s neared in the newly formed United States, it became evident that the Articles of Confederation — the very document that established an independent nation — had to be rewritten.”
As the 1790s neared in the newly formed United States, it became evident that the Articles of Confederation — the very document that established an independent nation — had to be rewritten. From new ideas emerging from the Enlightenment reverberating throughout Europe, to perceived inequitable treatment leading to chaotic outbursts of unchecked outrage and fury such as Shay’s and Whiskey Rebellions, the young nation was ready for change. Thus, the document that would dictate the lives of future generations for the next two hundred and fifty years was crafted: the United States Constitution. The document embarked on and succeeded in the seemingly insurmountable task of cultivating a potent government whose potency is not so strong as to reminisce about the monarch the colonies just escaped. It took a weak confederacy of states plagued with instability and chaos to construct a centralized government while simultaneously incorporating a system of checks and balances. It established a Bill of Rights to relinquish any fears of mimicking the very government that quashed independence and limited freedom. While the document had some downfalls that juxtaposed the very ideals and fundamentals that the “supreme law of the land” was founded upon, such as failing to protect citizens in times of war, upholding the act of slavery for another eighty-five some odd years, and limiting the rights of women, it left room to amend these shortcomings and evolve to what society and human nature would eventually become with advancements in philosophies and technologies. The United State’s Constitution is inherently just because of its ability to acknowledge its faults and grievances and change accordingly; this adaptability comes from the Elastic Clause, an organized legislative representation selected by the people of the United States, and the presence of the Bill of Rights.
The true justice of the United States’ Constitution came from its ability to adapt itself toward changing philosophies. Article V of the original document states that the document could be “amended” if “two thirds of both houses deem[ed] it necessary.” Thus, the ability of the government to adapt not only technologically, but also ideologically, with passing time was granted. While changing ideologies are often theorized as having to happen gradually over a long span of time, there have been instances where the Constitution was able to make necessary changes more rapidly. This capacity of the government to adapt to changing values both rapidly and gradually is a pertinent characteristic of its justice. For example, the Eighteenth Amendment was swiftly passed in 1920 as a result of the prohibition movement, immediately prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. While in theory, restricting alcohol consumption would encourage men to spend more time with their families and lower crime rate, it ended up having the opposite effect, bringing alcohol underground and leading officers to take bribes. Because the detriments of Prohibition proved to outweigh the benefits, leaders were able to use the Elastic Clause in the Constitution to pass the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition and allowing the law to revert back to a more suitable philosophy. Gradual changes in ideals have also been able to be met using the Elastic Clause of the Constitution. The slowly evolving issues of slavery and women’s rights were important considerations neglected in the original documents of the United States Constitution. However, the amendment process has proven its capability to modify: the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments served as examples of this fact, abolishing slavery and granting more rights to African Americans. Later, the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. While these changes certainly did not make up for the hardship inflicted, and it would be another hundred years until segregation would end, the justness of the Constitution provided the structure to enable the changes to take place when society was ready.
While the Elastic Clause of the United States Constitution played a critical role in determining whether or not the government was in fact able to remain just, other factors such as the implementation of the legislative branch of government also perpetuated its justness. The ability of citizens to elect representatives in this particular branch of government contributes immensely to the justness of the United States government as a whole. Although Alexander Hamilton argued that the legislation was not just, insisting “a large [sum] of people is not necessary for thorough representation”, no matter how large the group of representatives was, it was the inequity among different groups of people at the time that inhibited true democracy. Even if the Anti-Federalists claimed everyone should have thorough representation, any individual who was not white or male during this time period had no voice and nobody advocated for the possibility of them getting one. Even if this was the cultural reality at the time, the Constitution had everything it needed to correct these grievances, and eventually would do so when society was ready.
The legislative branch was not the only point of contention between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. One of the most crucial aspects to ensure a just government that perhaps even settled the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate was the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The Anti-Federalists refused to sign the Constitution without said rights. This was due in part to the fact that the Bill of Rights guaranteed essential liberties what would be known as the first ten amendments of the document that was aimed to prevent the cultivation of a monarchy. These rights directly juxtaposed the experiences prevalent in the British monarch, citing the rights against “quartering” soldiers and the right to “search and seizure” which necessitates a warrant before searching private property without probable cause. The Bill of Rights would become essential in ensuring limited power to the executive branch of government, and because of this structure, it would remain just.
While there are several flaws that could be ascertained through close examination of the United States Constitution, it is imperative that one takes into account the time period and circumstances under which it was written. Critics of the United States Constitution point to specific times in the country’s history where the government failed to uphold constitutional rights, especially in times of conflict or war. While the Bill of Rights guaranteed American citizens the “freedom of speech, religion, and press,” historians who question the justice of the United States Constitution note that these rights have been specifically challenged throughout the nation’s history. In 1798, John Adams passed The Sedition Act, limiting freedom of speech and press, as the United States prepared for the Quasi War with France. In recent years, suppression and discrimination have violated freedom of religion, brought on by fears of national security. However, while this prejudicial repression should not have been condoned, it has proved to be the only possible way to avert higher casualties and more violence. For example, had President Abraham Lincoln been more sensitive toward constitutional liberties and not suspended habeas corpus, the Civil War could have ended with more fatalities, as well as the demise of the Union. This would have come with issues such as slavery taking even longer to dissolve, for different values would have been imposed separately rather than being blended. The notion of slavery not being abolished is inarguably far worse than a short suspension of civil liberties.
Despite its shortcomings, the United States Constitution succeeded in taking an unstable, loose confederation of states and creating a centralized government, not so strong as to limit liberty, while simultaneously balancing state and federal control. Although at the time of its ratification, major contradictions to justice were prominent — and civil liberties were not always upheld during times of conflict — the Constitution’s ability to change itself, even today, enables the United States’ government to remain just. Only time will tell whether or not American leaders and their people will continue to use the elasticity of the Constitution to ultimately serve and protect all people.