Saturday, December 22, 2012

Why I love Article V of the Constitution

There's an excellent article at, called "A More Perfect Union," which goes through the history of the writing of the Constitution, it's ratification, and the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The lack of a bill of rights, enumerating the rights of individuals as a guard against tyranny, became a major sticking point in efforts to ratify the Constitution, and the final states to ratify only did so after receiving a promise that a bill of rights would be added as amendments. Which leads me to this from the article:

Benjamin Franklin told a French correspondent in 1788 that the formation of the new government had been like a game of dice, with many players of diverse prejudices and interests unable to make any uncontested moves. Madison wrote to Jefferson that the welding of these clashing interests was "a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it." When the delegates left Philadelphia after the convention, few, if any, were convinced that the Constitution they had approved outlined the ideal form of government for the country. But late in his life James Madison scrawled out another letter, one never addressed. In it he declared that no government can be perfect, and "that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government."

The delegates who wrote the Constitution knew it wasn't perfect, and James Madison is probably right that no government can be perfect. It's for this reason, I believe, that the Constitution has written into it the text of Article V:

"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."

This has long been my favorite part of the Constitution, even including, I think, the Bill of Rights itself, and the First Amendment (probably my most cherished of the actual amendments). We talk a lot in America about the intent of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and often treat this intent with a near-sacred quality, as if it should trump everything else in our debates about what this country should be. We argue about their intent with the First Amendment, about whether "free speech" only means speech, or whether it means "free expression." We argue about whether freedom of religion was intended to refer only to the various forms of Christianity, and whether the Establishment Clause was intended to keep teachers from leading their students in prayer. We argue about the intent of "well regulated militia" in the Second Amendment, and whether the Founding Fathers would have intended we have an unfettered right to any firearm we can get our hands on. And so on, and so forth.

But you know what? Article V is something that I hardly ever see brought up, and it says something about the intent of our Founders as well. It says that they knew the Constitution was imperfect, that writing it had been fraught with often bitter and acrimonious debate. It says that they intended to make it possible for those who followed to grow, to change, and to recognize those changes in the law of the land. And we have. We have recognized that black people shouldn't be counted as a mere 3/5ths of a person (Article 1, Section 1, para. 3), and so have Amended the Constitution to give full citizenship to people regardless of skin color, and we've abolished slavery (Amendments 13 and 15). We've recognized that women are people, and deserve the same voting rights as men, and we've amended the Constitution to reflect that (Amendment 19).

We've grown. We've changed. We've Improved.

That is the beauty of Article V. As we improve as a people in our understanding of justice, of morality, and of humanity, we can --if necessary-- improve the Supreme Law of our country to reflect that.


  1. Not enough time has passed since 13, 15, and 19 have passed. There are still those on the right who believe that these were mistakes (The Rand's for example).

    At least two generations need to pass before the true results of an amendment can be seen. Until then there will be, and are, enough who ether lived in or were taught by those who "remember the good old days."

  2. While true there are some who see those amendments as mistakes (even some women have recently said that it might be better if they couldn't vote), given that it takes a strong majority to pass an amendment, I still see it as positive progress. We've got a ways to go, and things could end up going backward at some point, but we're still improving.

  3. Well said! Too often in debates about US law, we unconsciously accept the premise that the Constitution is the final arbiter. The debate becomes about "is this Constitutional" rather than "is this good for our society." I think the Framers gave us a great constitution to work with, but that thing is amendable for a reason!

    Tim Martin