09.16.14

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee, On The Anniversary Of The Constitutional Convention

Tomorrow we will mark Constitution Day – a day set aside to reflect on our nation’s charter and how it has shaped what it means to be American.  On September 17, 1787, George Washington, James Madison, and their fellow Framers made the momentous decision to sign the Constitution and send it along to the American people for ratification – marking a new beginning in our nation’s profound experiment in democracy.

As important as the original charter continues to be, the Founders did not design it to be immutable.  One of its most notable features is Article V, which established the process for improvement in the form of constitutional amendments.  This key provision – rooted in both intellectual humility and constitutional faith – ensured that our nation’s constitutional journey would not conclude in Philadelphia in 1787.  Instead, it would continue to unfold in the decades and centuries that followed, tasking each generation of Americans with improving the charter in order to build “a more perfect Union.”

Since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, our Constitution has been amended 17 times. These changes have helped to make the Constitution the revered document it is today.  As I have noted on previous Constitution Days, Americans must celebrate not just the original Constitution of Washington, Madison, and the Founding generation, but the whole Constitution, including its 27 Amendments.  This is all the more important as we approach a key set of anniversaries – the 150th anniversaries of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, which many scholars have rightly described as our nation’s “Second Founding.”

Ratified by President Lincoln and his generation after the Civil War, these Second Founding Amendments transformed our original charter – ending slavery, banning racial discrimination in voting, and elevating liberty and equality to a central place in our constitutional order.  Perhaps most importantly, these Amendments gave Congress the authority it needed to protect the civil rights of all Americans – authority that we have used to pass landmark civil rights laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Before our nation marked the original Constitution’s Bicentennial in 1987, Congress established a commission led by Chief Justice Burger to organize a national celebration.  Americans from across the political spectrum came together in a spirit of unity and pride to honor the Founding generation’s profound achievements.  With the 150th anniversary of the Second Founding, President Lincoln and his generation deserve the same.

It is deeply saddening to me that the anniversary of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments coincides not with such a celebration, however, but with what can be called nothing short of an attack on the principles of equality and liberty they protect.  The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder and the wave of recent state laws undermining the right to vote demonstrate a dangerous erosion to these monumental Amendments that provide us the tools we need to build a fairer, freer, and more equal society.

Tomorrow, as we celebrate the signing of our Constitution 227 years ago, I hope that we also reflect on the unfinished work ahead that is necessary to live up to the core principles enshrined in our nation’s charter – including those of the Second Founding.  The racial tensions exposed by the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri are not new, but they should serve as a clear reminder that our work is not done.  I am heartened by the national dialogue that has been sparked by that young man’s tragic death and it is my sincere hope that we can harness that energy, directing it not toward greater distrust and divide, but toward meeting the challenge to build a more perfect Union left to us by our Founders.

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