by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law
*This post is part of the ACSblog symposium: Constitution Day 2016.
Happy Constitutions Day!
No, that is not a typo. I know that tomorrow, September 17, is officially “Constitution Day,” marking the date in 1787 when the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification. And I know there is only one document called the Constitution of the United States, not multiple different ones. Yet given how much the Constitution has changed, how different our perceptions of its requirements and the many other constitutions in American lives, perhaps we should nonetheless refer to it as “Constitutions Day.”
Of course the original version of the Constitution is of vital importance to American history, culture and law. We must remember, however, that the states found that document wanting because it lacked a clear specification of individual rights. Several states conditioned their ratification of the Constitution on the adoption of significant amendments. Their objections to the Constitution led to the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Four years after the first Constitution was proposed, we end up with a new one, revised and improved.
Since then, we have added another 17 amendments to the Constitution. Some, like the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, & 15th) are of tremendous significance, radically reshaping the Constitution once again. The effect on American life and government from these amendments, which overhauled the relationship between the federal government and the states, was profound. Other amendments, like the 27th, which deals with congressional salaries, are relatively minor. Yet all of them have one thing in common: they each created a new Constitution. The Constitution today is different than the Constitution Americans lived with 50 years ago, which is different from the one 50 years before that.