To My Fellow Citizens:
Every year, a lot of people think up all kinds of new constitutional amendments. Politicians and intellectuals propose them often enough: one professor, for example, recently suggested 23 new ones. It’s been 20 years, however, since America ratified the last amendment on May 7, 1992. Is that a good thing? It seems worth reflecting on that question in our continuing effort to equip ourselves to inherit and pass on (or even enhance?) the great American heritage of political freedom.
Thomas Jefferson hoped that the entire Constitution would be changed or re-ratified every 20 years. We should not, he wrote, look upon a constitution with "sanctimonious reverence." It is not "like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched"; it is simply a means to achieve the great ends of a free society laid out in the Declaration of Independence. "The earth belongs always to the living generation," Jefferson argued, and "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
This is a powerful argument, but it did not convince Jefferson's friend and life-long political ally, James Madison. Madison shared Jefferson's view that while the Constitution is the how of American government, the Declaration is the why. The Constitution is important as the means by which we Americans achieve the moral and political purposes declared in 1776.
But unlike Jefferson, Madison had been at the Convention in 1787, and he knew that the "miracle at Philadelphia" was not only that the country conceived a constitution there. It was that our nation as a whole began to acquire constitutionalism – the idea and habit of steadfast adherence to the rule of law and to a written document that guides us as a people.
Madison knew that the people must have a constitutional disposition if they were to keep their authority from degenerating into mere willfulness. The Constitution is supposed to limit the federal government; but it is also supposed to show the people their limits – that their government cannot do anything they want, but only what the Constitution permits. It cultivates good habits of political moderation and lawfulness by reminding the people that there is something above them and their will – justice. It says to them that if they want to keep their authority, they must always exercise their power according to "the laws of nature and of nature's God," as the Declaration says. To be a Declarational people, Madison knew, Americans must always remain a constitutional people.
As a constitutional people, we must be careful about changing the Constitution because while the people make the Constitution, it also makes the people. As Madison said in Federalist 49, frequent constitutional change "would, in great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability." Without such sober reverence, the "PASSIONS, therefore, not the REASON, of the public would sit in judgment. But it is the reason, alone, of the public that ought to control and regulate the government."
This means that every time someone proposes to change the Constitution, he is really proposing to change the character of the American people. Sometimes the proposed change is an improvement that makes the people more like their true selves – that is, it makes the people live more fully according to our fundamental principles. The 14th Amendment, for example, has molded the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" into a political habit; we are now a people who understand that no government – state or federal – can deny people "equal protection of the laws." The amendment has made us more republican, in the proper sense of the word.
But constitutional change could work the other way. Consider the increasingly popular idea of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College with a direct popular vote for president. This would also affect the character of the people, and not in a good way. The will of the numerical majority would become the constitutional rule for filling our highest office, strengthening in the public mind the false idea that a simple majority is always the right way to do things. In addition, all citizens would be lumped together into one undifferentiated mass, which denies that there are any constitutionally respectable differences of interest or attachment between, for example, people in Ohio and people in California. But we really do have such legitimate interests and attachments, as we can see in our federal system. This change would cause Americans to become more inclined to regard all particular interests and differences with greater suspicion, and to have a weaker attachment to our states in favor, naturally, of a greater attachment to the federal government.
Not surprisingly, abolishing the Electoral College is usually favored by those who distrust differences between human beings and who want a more energetic federal government devoted to reducing those differences. From Madison's point of view, these people share the vice of the "[t]heoretic politicians, who… have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights… they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions" (Federalist 10).
Being wary of tampering with the Constitution does not mean that we should confuse it with the Ark of the Covenant. Jefferson was right: we can touch it, and we won't die. We've already done that 27 times. We should always consider the Constitution in light of its higher ends – above all, securing every person's natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and governing ourselves as free men and women. But Madison was also right: if we are going to achieve the purposes of the Declaration, we must treat the Constitution with real reverence, and think hard about how any changes to it would change the very character of our country.
The 27th Amendment was ratified only 20 years ago. But it was originally proposed way back in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights. It took 203 years to be ratified – a long time, to be sure. But that probably would not have bothered the man who first proposed it, James Madison.