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My lifelong learners and the continuing experiment


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

“The Constitution is an experiment, just as all life is an experiment.”

– Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes

I’ve been teaching an adult education constitutional law course at Keene State this fall. When I signed up to do this, I wondered whether anyone would take the course. I needn’t have worried. For the last several Fridays, I have greeted 63 “Lifelong Learners” eager to talk about the United States Constitution. I guess it’s a hot subject.

That document was created in 1789, amended in 1791 by the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights), and amended seventeen more times since then. Two of those amendments cancel each other out. The 18th Amendment made the country dry, and the 21st thought better of the 18th.

Of the other 15 amendments, some have become as much part of our constitutional fabric as the first 10. The Thirteenth Amendment outlaws slavery; the Fourteenth grants rights of citizenship, due process, and equal protection; the Fifteenth extends voting rights to all races; and the Nineteenth grants women the right to vote. Not to mention the Twenty-Sixth, which gives 18-year-old citizens the right to vote.

We haven’t had occasion to use all the amendments yet. The Twenty-Fifth Amendment, ratified in 1967, says that the Vice-President and a majority of the cabinet members can decide that the President is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” in which case the Vice-President takes over. If the President puts up a fight, then it’s up to Congress to decide. Just imagine the tweeting if that were to occur!

The first three words of the Constitution are “We the people.” Not “I the King,” or “In the name of the Lord,” but “We,” the governed. As Lincoln put it in his most famous speech, ours is a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Some of the Founding Fathers’ names we all recognize: Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Madison. Others not so much. New Hampshire’s John Langdon and Nicholas Gilman were among the signers, along with a number of others whom history barely remembers.

We’ve been through some rocky times since they signed the Constitution. In 1857, the Supreme Court decided the Dred Scott case, essentially proclaiming that the Declaration of Independence, which we read every July 4 at the Jaffrey Meeting House, didn’t mean what it says. According to seven of the nine Justices, the words “all men are created equal” did not apply to slaves, former slaves, or anyone else of African descent. Thus, the Court decided, they were not “citizens” of this country, a decision that Lincoln called an “astonisher in legal history.”

Going back to that case remains a wrenching experience. It took a Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment to overrule the Dred Scott decision and give “all persons,” not just white people, the rights of citizenship. And our constitutional “experiment” continues to this day, with the country a much different place than it was in Philadelphia in 1787, or in Appomattox in 1865.

For the last several weeks my 63 students and I have been trying to understand at least some of this “experiment,” and everyday life keep reminding us that the Constitution really matters. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet met the ambitious goals set forth in the preamble, one of which is to “insure domestic Tranquility.”

Joseph D. Steinfield lives in Keene and Jaffrey. He is a lawyer at Prince Lobel in Boston and Of Counsel to the Law Office of Thomas R. Hanna in Keene. He can be reached at jsteinfield@hannalandlaw.com. Copyright 2017.