September 14, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

A more perfect union

I got an email from school stating that next week, in honor of Constitution Day, there will be a public reading of the U.S. Constitution by students.


My first thought was that this didn’t sound like something a serious university would do, but was more akin to things we did in seventh grade, like the time my class had to recite the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial.

Then my second thought was, “Constitution Day??”

Turns out Constitution Day is a legitimate holiday, of sorts. Wikipedia explains that it has been in effect since 2004, replacing something called “Citizenship Day.” The article has a minimal history of Citizenship/Constitution Day, noting that Citizenship Day was signed into law by Harry Truman, originally intended to “recognize everyone who had become a United States citizen during the previous year.”

That sounds ok, kind of like how offices recognize everybody who had a birthday in a particular month. “Constitution Day” sounds worse at first blush, more like government propaganda. But at least we in the U.S. have a reasonably decent Constitution. Sure, it has plenty of flaws: even with some helpful Amendments it remains dated, it has the weird Electoral College, it totally screwed over residents of DC, it failed to anticipate political parties, it deliberately over-represents small states, it has that awkwardly-phrased Second Amendment, etc., etc. Still, it has held up surprisingly well over the past couple centuries; even its flaws are mostly the result of tough compromises. I am not opposed to giving it its due once a year. In fact, I would support rearranging the federal holiday schedule, dropping the pointless and bizarre Columbus Day (what does Columbus have to do with the U.S. anyway?), moving Labor Day to May Day where it belongs, and adding in Constitution Day as the primary federal holiday of the fall. The more I think about Constitution Day, the more I like it.

But the main thing I am curious about is this concept of holding a public reading of the Constitution. I mean, are they going to read the whole thing? What about the parts that have been amended? What about the Amendments? What about the Amendments that are no longer valid?

The thing is, the Constitution is just a pretty dry legal document. It’s not too long, but it’s full of technical details about the structure of courts and such. Once you get past the Preamble, nobody is going to listen.

So I’m not interested in hearing the Constitution read out loud, but there is a lot of value to an annual look at the supreme law of the land. I can think of many people who ought to take another look at the boring text of the Constitution.

For example, there is this great part in Article I, Section 8, stating that the Congress shall have the power

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

Crazy! Who knew? Congress is supposed to declare war and regulate the military? They even get to decide about “Captures on Land”? Why doesn’t somebody let them know they have these powers?

And in the very next Section, there is this interesting little tidbit:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

Hang on! “Rebellion or Invasion,” eh? But what about “nebulous terrorist threat”? That has to be in here somewhere.

Down in Article II, there’s hardly anything about the President, it doesn’t seem like he has many powers at all. It’s mostly all about nominating Ambassadors and such, although he is described as the “Commander in Chief.” The only thing really interesting is that

he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed

Well that’s a relief. Everything will work out fine.

Happy Constitution Day!