It appears that a large percentage of American adults had not been paying attention when the Constitution was taught to them in school. Or perhaps they just never received a civics lesson.
Here are ten basic truths about the US Constitution which many people don’t seem to understand. This is unfortunate, because a lot of political rhetoric and misinformation are specifically designed to appeal to those who don’t understand these truths.
1. The purpose of the Constitution was to create a strong federal government
Several memes such as this one are floating around Facebook:
If you share such a message, you are sharing misinformation. The Constitution was written to strengthen, not limit, the power of the federal government.
Congress called for a national convention “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” It was widely known at the time that this meant the creation of a stronger federal government.
The convention, however, went beyond its stated purpose and created an even stronger federal government than it had been expected to. The Constitution of the United States, as proposed by the Constitutional Convention and as ratified by the states, gave us a much stronger federal government. That was the purpose all along. The creation of a stronger central government proved to be a major issue during the fight for ratification. The Federalists won that fight, and the Constitution – with a stronger central government as its prominent feature – was ratified.
2. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention did not believe that the US Constitution should guarantee individual rights
The Bill of Rights was added after the Constitution had been ratified. The first 10 amendments comprise the Bill of Rights. The idea of including personal rights in a draft of a Constitution was discussed at the convention, but rejected. Various states had their own versions of a bill of rights, and the majority of delegates considered the states’ versions to be sufficient. They chose to leave the concept of personal rights as an issue to be decided at the state level.
This proved to be a miscalculation on the part of the delegates. During the fight for ratification, it became clear that the Constitution would fail without some guarantees of individual rights. As a result, supporters of the Constitution promised that if ratified, the first order of business under the new Constitution would be a set of amendments dealing with individual rights. They made good on that promise.
The Bill of Rights was based largely on the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights. The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution contains some of the same language found in the earlier Virginia Declaration of Rights, including the much-discussed “a well-regulated militia.” It is interesting to note that the Virginia version had been written by George Mason, one of the Constitutional Convention delegates who refused to sign the Constitution.
3. Separation of church and state was considered by the founders to be one of the few “absolute musts” for American government
Some people like to claim that separation of church and state is not in the Constitution because the term itself cannot be shown to predate a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. This claim is a diversionary tactic; the concept was important in the minds of those writing the Constitution, even if the familiar name we now use for the concept came later.
The original text of the Constitution mentions religion only once. Article VI states that, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The entire set of amendments, including the Bill of Rights, mentions religion only once.
The First Amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Through these words, the Constitution lays out the concept of separation of church and state, even if that particular phrase had yet to be coined.
Delegates entered the Constitutional Convention not even sure what system of government they were going to form. They weren’t even sure if the United States should be ruled by a king. But they were sure that religion and government shouldn’t be mixed.
The words and actions of the founders make it very clear: The United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation.
4. American-style democracy is more complicated than “majority rule”
I like to think of it this way. The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. It was very hot that summer. They had no air conditioning. The debates went on for the entire summer. Tempers often were short.
In these conditions, it would have been much simpler for the Convention to write something which simply stated “majority rules.” They could have finished their business and gone home much sooner. But they didn’t do it the easy way. They took the time to create a system of checks and balances; a system in which the rights of the minority are protected from the tyranny of the majority.
We cannot simply vote away the rights of those we disagree with. That would be unconstitutional.
5. Executive orders by the president are constitutional
The Constitution doesn’t mention executive orders, but it does spell out the separation of powers. The president is the head of the executive branch of government which includes various governmental agencies. An executive order is simply a clarification of the duties and priorities for members of the executive branch of government. The president is in charge of the operations of the executive branch. This is consistent with the separation of powers as laid down in the Constitution.
The president is required to find a justification in the law or in the Constitution for any executive order. Any executive order is subject to judicial review.
If Congress doesn’t like the results of an executive order, it can write a specific law that will have the effect of nullifying the order. Such a law would be subject to a presidential veto.
Every president in American history, beginning with George Washington, has issued executive orders.
6. Rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are not absolute
We have rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. We do not have the right to take away other people’s rights. Allowing people from different demographics, people with different beliefs, and people with different political views to have the same rights we have is not tyranny. Tyranny would be demanding that we should be allowed to take away the rights of others.
Sometimes, the court system must intervene when situations arise in which the rights of one group of people conflict with the rights of another group of people.
7. A Constitution which resolved the slavery issue would have been impossible in the 1700s
Some people criticize the founding fathers for the three-fifths rule regarding slavery. While this rule points out the unfortunate circumstances in the United States during that historical time frame, the truth is that a Constitution which “resolved” the slavery issue once and for all would have had no chance for ratification. A resolution one way or the other at that moment in history would have doomed the Constitution. Perhaps it would have doomed the United States as well, since the Articles of Confederation proved to be inadequate for effective government.
8. The House of Representatives does NOT control the federal purse strings
Article 1, Section 7 states: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.”
Some people cite this section of the Constitution and conclude that the House of Representatives controls the federal purse strings. But the budget process is very different from what this conclusion would lead you to believe.
Congress, not the Constitution, determines the procedures for budgetary matters. This section of the Constitution defines one procedural step, and it is a step of little consequence for the entire budget process. It merely means that the Senate cannot proceed with a formal bill introduction until after the House has officially introduced the bill. There is much, much more going on behind the scenes before and after this step, involving the president as well as the Senate and House of Representatives.
9. The Constitution includes a legal definition of treason against the United States
A lot of political advocates like to throw the word “treason” around, especially in this age of political polarization. Many of these claims have no basis in the Constitution. Here is what the Constitution says about treason:
Article III, Section 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
10. The Constitution was written so that, in times of war, you can oppose the decision to go to war and still support the troops
Some people denounce opponents of specific wars as “not supporting the troops.” The founders insisted that the military be put under control of civilian authorities. Thus, the president is also the Commander-in-Chief. The Commander-in-Chief is subject to political pressures and is answerable to the voters; the military is not. Decisions about going to war have been separated from the troops. You can oppose a war and at the same time give full support to the troops.