From the forthcoming A Proposed New Constitution, available online. This and all related articles may be freely shared and reposted, in full or in part, under Creative Commons, with proper authorship and not for profit.
Continuing and Expanding the Original Constitution and its Amendments
“1. All articles and amendments from the previous Constitution of 1787 remain the final law of the land, except as changed by the following articles or later amendments.”
As was just described in the Introduction, the original constitution does not deserve reverence. It was elitist, conceived in secrecy, passed by undemocratic means, and deliberately designed to insure economic elites will also hold political control. This proposed constitution does not seek to take away what was good and right in the original amendments to the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights, and amendments such as the Reconstruction Amendments and the Right to Vote for Women remain incredibly important.
The original constitution is another matter. It is purely a document of power, who has it and can wield it. It is not about rights or democracy, but designed to limit rights and democracy. The amendments stay protected. The First Amendments is the most cherished part of the entire constitution, protecting freedom of speech, assembly, petition, and religion. It also blocks established state churches, one of the main causes of religious repression and wars partly or wholly begun or justified using religion. The lack of an official state church is one of the main reasons the US is one of the most devout nations in the world, with an incredible diversity of faiths. There are dozens of Southern Baptist organizations alone.
The Second Amendment is the most controversial of all the amendments. It is best left alone, for any attempt to alter it would at least occupy and perhaps split apart the entire convention. Not only that, crime has been dropping for several decades already, including gun crimes. Most gun deaths are suicides, and they along with some gun crimes can be reduced by restricting guns to the mentally ill, felons, or those under restraining orders, by ordinary law.
The remaining amendments include rights against self incrimination, to a speedy trial, equal protection in the Fourteenth Amendment, an end to slavery, suffrage for women, presidential succession, and an end to poll taxes and literacy tests. It would be difficult to understate the importance of these rights to individuals and to expanding rights. All these amendments besides the Bill of Rights are ones most of the founders would have opposed. These amendments are almost all very real defeats of the original elitist intent of the founders.
2. This and all future constitutional conventions must be representative of the US public, by gender, race and ethnicity, and religious faith or lack of. Its members must be respected intellectuals drawn from education, religious institutions, civil rights groups, non-governmental organizations, labor, business, military veteran groups, consumer groups, and scientists. No current or former elected officials or appointed cabinet members or presidential or congressional advisors or staff are allowed. All constitution conventions must be in full view of the public, every word said by every delegate at the convention scrupulously recorded.
The original constitution was by, for, and of elitists, entirely white males, mostly very wealthy slave owners, speculators, and professional politicians. Any and all future constitutions, including this proposed one, must not be. They must include everyone, every last social group, every last group of important representative institutions. To fail to do so means the document is not legitimate, and deserves not to be seen as such.
Look at the background of the original 55 founders:
41 had been members of the Continental Congress. 35 had legal training (not all practicing.) 18 were speculators in land or stocks. 14 were plantation owners, also owning many slaves, and others had domestic slaves. There were only two small farmers. The only other good trait of the founders were five who were doctors or scientists.
All 55 were white. All 55 were male. 49 were Protestant (28 of them Episcopal), and only two Catholics. Three of the most important, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, were Deists, believers in God who did not belong to any church.
Now look at a hypothetical convention of 100 delegates who represent a cross section of America under this proposal:
64 whites, 17 Latinos, 13 Blacks, 5 Asians, and 1 American Indian.
51 women and 49 men.
51 Protestants, 22 Catholics, 16 atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated, 2 Jewish, 2 Orthodox Christians, 1 Mormon, 1 Buddhist, 1 Hindu, 1 Muslim, and 3 who won't say their faith.
Obviously there were would be no plantation or slave owners, though likely a few speculators or lawyers. Most of the membership would be drawn from institutions devoted to public service, and no office holders. The only thing the two conventions would share might be roughly equal numbers of scientists and doctors.
Such a convention would be far more devoted to the public good than the founders ever were. The chances of institutions like an Electoral College being repeated are extremely remote. Ideally the delegates would seek consensus on as many issues as possible, and deliberate obstructionists would be few, as they are intellectuals more than ideologues.
The most constructive way to run a convention would be to limit the time to several weeks to give the delegates impetus to finish decisively. Immediately hold an informal nonbinding straw poll to see which proposals have the most and least support. All proposals with less than a third support get tabled until the end, perhaps never voted on at all. Those with the highest support are voted on, in that order. This would create a momentum to hopefully carry forward the proceedings, and help solve the more difficult and contentious issues.
Such a convention must also have rules in place to bar filibusters entirely, strictly limiting the amount of time speaking by one person, establish quorums easily, and bring votes quickly. For the truly intractable issues, a model can be found in how historic treaties like the Camp David Accords were negotiated. When two sides disagree strongly on an issue, those who are not part of either group and with the least stake or emotion tied up in that issue act as go betweens, seeking out common ground and finding solutions neither side had tried or thought of before.
This and any other possible future conventions must be out in the open for all to see, with no more secretive deliberations as the original convention had. The media must be there to observe but not interfere or agitate, and the public there to observe, much like the visitors' gallery in Congress today. Secrecy and elitism create and guarantee mistrust, rightfully so. Recent history shows us the public greatly distrusted NAFTA and GATT, for perfectly valid reasons, as gatherings of remote elites designed to undermine democratic institutions out of sight from the public. This convention must be accessible. Every word at it must be recorded for historic reasons as well. There is much we do not know about the original convention because of the walls of secrecy those elitists hid behind.
3. Each of these following articles must be voted on and approved separately by two thirds or more of those voting to become the law of the land.
The public should not be forced to vote an entire document either up or down, accepting those parts they disagree with in order to have those parts they do agree with. This is what the original founders did (except it was to other elites, the special state conventions and not the public) and it further shows how anti democratic their methods deliberately were.
The vote should also be a supermajority, two thirds or more, to become the highest law in the land. Passing by narrow majorities would be rightly seen as contentious, undermine any consensus these new laws deserve to be our constitution, and probably foreshadow a great deal of conflict.
One of the best examples is the abortion issue. There are few countries where abortion is a more divisive issue than the US, and that is precisely because of how it was done. The Supreme Court declared abortion bans to be unconstitutional based on an implied right to privacy. In most of the rest of the world, abortion bans were dropped by vote. Thus the issue felt more resolved to most of the public. Had the court not acted, an abortion ban may well have dropped anyway, state by state. I hasten to point out, this proposed constitution includes the right to privacy in Article 15, protecting abortion rights among other things.
This vote must be held by the public, and not by legislatures as the current constitution requires. Needing approval by the states gives far too much power to small population and mostly rural states, far out of proportion to their population. It is deliberately anti democratic, as the founders yet again intended.
If two thirds of the public nationwide vote for these articles, that gives them legitimacy. But would that not ignore the original constitution? Yes, and that is half the point. The founders did precisely the same, ignoring the original Articles of Confederation. The original Articles state they are “...perpetual; nor shall any alteration at any time be made in any of them; unless such alteration agreed to in Congress of the US & confirmed by legislatures of every State.” As pointed out in the Introduction, on both counts, the constitution was illegally adopted, not agreed to either by congress or state legislatures.
If the founder could ignore the original Articles, we as a nation can and should ignore the founders and the constitutional requirement, based on the precedent the founders themselves set. A two thirds supermajority will create enormous pressure on the federal government: Accept these new constitutional articles we have just approved, overwhelmingly, as now the highest law of the land.
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and the author of numerous articles and books including the forthcoming A Proposed New Constitution.