The four most important clauses in the Constitution are:
- Preamble: “We the People of the United States …”
- Article 5: “shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified …:
- Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”
- Fourteenth Amendment: “The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
“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.”
Why is this important? After the Revolutionary War ended, the nation was governed under the Articles of Confederation. But the national government had too little power to ensure the survival of the nation. An elite group of men gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 to craft a new constitution and a new nation, one with a more powerful central government more capable of effectively governing the nation and increasing its chances of success.
The fourteenth amendment contains the famous phrases “privileges and immunities”, “due process”, and “equal protection.” In the final section of the amendment, section 5, it states:
“The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Why is this important? The Constitution was promulgated to strengthen the central government in order to increase the nation’s chances for survival. But even that more muscular central government was not enough to hold the union together. After the Civil War, several amendments including this fourteenth one, brought more uniformity to the government, for instance, by holding states to the same standards of rights in dealing with their citizens as was provided federally in the early amendments. One of the features of the original Constitution was a limiting of the rights of the three branches of government. With this statement, Congress is revisiting those limitations. It is important to reinterpret those limitations in the original document in light of the words of this amendment.
The ninth amendment ensures that there is more to the rights of Americans than what is in the Constitution proper.
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Why is this important? The Constitution recognizes that there are rights which it cannot enumerate, and which might also not be immutable, but which exist nonetheless. And these rights belong not to the states or the majority, but to the people and to individual citizens. Since these rights come from the body of the people, what are considered rights can change as the nation moves forward through history. The statement, “But that is not in the Constitution!” might have no meaning, since the Constitution itself recognizes rights which it does not state. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decided that one of our rights was a right to privacy; in Loving v. Virginia, that one had the right to marry whomever one wanted unrestricted by racial considerations.
But more importantly, this amendment says that while the Constitution is an expression of how to govern our nation, there is more to our foundations than the mere words of the Constitution. And more than that, the particularities of that foundation are subject to change with a changing citizenry.
Article V of the Constitution lays out a framework for amending the Constitution itself.
“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.”
Why is this important? All ratified amendments to the Constitution are as much a part of the Constitution as the original document itself. If you want to know the intent of the authors of the Constitution when making a legal or political argument, you need to refer not only to those who wrote the original document, but all those responsible as history has unfolded for the amendments which have been made to the Constitution. Later amendments have explicitly rescinded parts of the original document, for instance, how we count “other Persons” not free nor untaxed Indians. Some have explicitly modified the way we choose our President. Other amendments have less explicitly changed the foundations on how we judge what the Constitution means. The fourteenth amendment no longer means, “when the right to vote … is denied to any of the male inhabitants of the such State, being twenty-one years of age.” It now means “to any male or female, being eighteen years of age,” since the nineteenth and twenty-sixth amendments extended suffrage to them.
But more importantly, through our amendments, we have created a more equal society, a notion which must be taken into consideration as we inform ourselves as to the meaning of the Constitution, particularly those parts which were written when we were less equal.
Why these four clauses? The original authors of the Constitution realized that for the document to work, those coming after them would have to be able to modify it to keep it relevant. The Constitution is not a sacred object, but a plan for moving forward, one which will need to be adjusted for the exigencies of the times, and one which must reflect the people themselves. And as the nation has gone forward, two things have happened which arose out of our circumstances, and have tailored our Constitution. One is the sense that a stronger central government is necessary if the union is to be able to survive. The Constitution was created to strengthen the national government when the Articles of Confederation failed; the fourteenth amendment further unified the nation in its government after the Civil War had almost rent the nation asunder. The other is that the history of the nation is one of increasing equality. As “We the People” has been expanded to include a wider variety of we, the people, and since the Constitution is an expression of us, what the Constitution means has changed as the people it represents have changed.