Every September, serious students (and admirers) of the United States Constitution give pause to review that document — ratified in September 1787 — and to reflect on its paramount influence on our government.
It is generally acknowledged by scholars to be the finest written constitution in the world; Great Britain is generally acknowledged to have the finest unwritten constitution. This I learned in ninth grade civics class.
Neither then, nor in four years as a government major at Florida State University, did I learn how an “unwritten constitution” works. Apparently, it is possible for one of the greatest governments in the history of the world to function based on a commitment to what is “cricket,” not what is written.
One of the most remarkable things about the United States Constitution is that in 231 years, it has been amended only 27 times. (By contrast, there will be 13 proposed amendments to Florida’s Constitution on the November general election ballot.)
Of those 27 amendments, 10 — the Bill of Rights — didn’t change the Constitution, but spelled out the rights guaranteed to all Americans.
Two amendments — Prohibition and Repeal — canceled each other out.
That leaves 15 amendments that actually changed things.
Of these, the most dramatic changes were the Civil Rights amendments, all adopted within five years of the end of the Civil War. These were the 13th (abolishing slavery), 14th (extending civil rights to all citizens), and 15th (extending the right to vote without regard to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”).
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 60 years later, with the 19th amendment.
The 24th, forbidding poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting, was introduced and shepherded through to passage by U.S. Sen. Spessard L. Holland of Bartow.
The most recent amendment, the 27th, was ratified in 1992, nearly 203 years after it was proposed. It forbids members of Congress from raising their own salaries with an effective date before the next election of members of the House of Representatives.
We in the press tend to think of the First Amendment as “our amendment.” Indeed, without it, the right of the press to criticize politicians would never have survived.
But there are four freedoms in the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
These rights, arguably more than any others, give Americans a degree of certainty of the survival of the Republic in uncertain times.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. He has long observed that citizens are more willing to accept actions of government that they don’t like when they have the opportunity to voice their opposition before a vote is taken.)