Have You Read the Constitution?
At the 2016 Democratic Convention, Khizr Khan asked of Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump; “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”
Unless you are living under a rock, if you are in the United States you have heard about his question and the ongoing political debate, as have millions of people around the globe.
However, putting aside the political discussion, the basic question Mr. Khan asks is a critical one for every U.S. citizen. The U.S. Constitution forms the basis of our “more perfect Union” and sets out our fundamental rights as citizens.
A More Perfect Union
Parts of the preamble are well known by most U.S. citizens:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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.
Although the preamble mentions that the constitution was created in part to “establish justice,” it is vital that we as citizens know more than the preamble if we are to understand our rights and the basic principles on how our government works. It is the Constitution and its Amendments that provide the framework of our enduring search for justice for all.
Many people know more about the Declaration of Independence than the Constitution. There is no question that the Declaration of Independence is a vitally important document in the formation of America, but it is the Constitution that actually created the United States of America.
While teaching a criminal law course at a local community college I required everyone in the class to write a report on the U.S. Constitution. In reading their reports, it was amazing to me how many of them indicated they had never previously read our founding document.
Seven Articles and 27 Amendments
Comprised of Seven Articles and 27 Amendments, the Constitution has endured for over 200 years through external and internal conflagrations including the War of 1812, the Civil War, two World Wars, presidential assignations, the riots in the late 1960s, and two presidents being impeached. The Constitution’s first Article creates the “Legislative Branch” or Congress. The second Article creates the “Executive Branch” or the Presidency, and the third Article fashions the “Judicial Branch” or the Federal Courts. These three branches each provide a check and balance on the other two to ensure that no one branch abuses its authority. The Legislature creates the laws, the Presidency enforces the laws, and the judiciary interprets the laws; each branch has its function in a republican democracy like the United States.
Bill of Rights
As anyone who has seen “Hamilton” can tell you, during the debates for ratification of the Constitution, a major point of concern by those who opposed a federal system was their belief that individual rights would be trampled by an overbearing federal authority. Thus, to assuage their concern, the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments were added during Congress’ first session.
For the past several years it has been common to hear discussions about the 2nd Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms, but it is the 1st Amendment that allows for that discussion by providing: Freedom of Religion, Free Speech, and the Right to Peaceably Assemble. It is the 4th Amendment that keeps our homes free from unreasonable searches with the 5th Amendment prohibiting Double Jeopardy, e.g., being tried for the same crime a second time, or being compelled to be a witness against yourself in a criminal case. The 6th Amendment provides for the right to a speedy trial, to have our accusers confront us in a court of law and to have legal representation in a court of law. Just mentioning a few of the amendments demonstrates that within the first 10 Amendments there is a wealth of information and protections guaranteed for every citizen.
Due Process and Equal Protection
Many people who know the Constitutional Amendments and discuss their impact argue that the 14th Amendment has provided the most influence and that it may be the most important amendment. It clearly provides an important basis for justice for all, by declaring that no State shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Those two clauses, the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, provide the basis for every person within the United States to be treated fairly and equally. They are the basic principles for every U.S. court and fundamental concepts in obtaining justice for everyone.
Beyond the United States
Yes, it is important that every citizen read and understand the U.S. Constitution and what it means for the freedoms we all enjoy. But it is just as important that we recognize these important rights beyond the borders of the United States. These basic and fundamental rights are global in perspective.
In 1948, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document sets forth fundamental human rights that should be universally protected. When reading the Universal Declaration, you find many of the same concepts contained in the U.S. Constitution, such as in Arti
cle 7 of the Universal Declaration — everyone is equal before the law with equal protection — or Article 12, the right to be protected from attacks on a person’s home or even a person’s honor. Articles 18, 19, and 20 essentially provide Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, and the Right to Peaceful Assembly.
Justice Is for Everyone
Has every country followed through and implemented these universal rights? Of course not; we see efforts to deny them on a daily basis in any number of countries by small minded groups of people, or various countries’ leaders desirous of imposing their will on the citizenry. That is when we need to speak up. Justice is a value that goes beyond governments and borders. It is a fundamental idea that everyone deserves and that we all must support.
The great U.S. Civil Rights advocate, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., declared: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In a different land far from the U.S. another great person also led a fight for human dignity and justice. Nelson Mandela stated: “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”
It doesn’t matter where we are; it doesn’t matter who we are. Justice has to apply to all, no matter their race, age, ethnicity, national origin, disability, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or gender.
Speaking up for justice requires that we understand and live its basic principles. It requires that we take the time to read those Founding Documents and share their message of freedom with everyone. So back to the initial question: Have you read the United States Constitution?