The Constitution is back in vogue, thanks in large part to its constant invocation by the likes of the upstart conservative “tea party” movement and one of its favorite sons, talk-show host Glenn Beck.
The tea party has “got people thinking more seriously what’s in the Constitution and what’s not,” said Michael Barone, a political analyst with the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
But Mr. Barone and others say it would be wrong to assume that the conservative movement was solely responsible for creating the constitutional buzz. Rather, high-profile Supreme Court cases in the past 10 or 15 years have helped reignite dialogue about the document, which marks its 223rd birthday on Friday.
David Eisner, chief executive of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, said the uptick in interest began with the Supreme Court’s role in helping decide the outcome of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
“So much of what we’re seeing, whether it’s health care or immigration or national security or campaign finance, really boils down to constitutional issues,” Mr. Eisner said. “And a lot of what we’ve seen even in the last month around the role of the federal government, vis-a-vis the private sector, in terms of how it regulates and the power to oversee private investment, I think is directly constitutional.”
For longtime advocates of the nation’s principal organ of law, Constitution Day on Friday is a prime opportunity to remind Americans of its power, relevance and resiliency.
“America is in the midst of a civic revival,” said Colin Hanna, president of conservative group Let Freedom Ring, which is organizing a nationwide public reading of the Constitution on Saturday.
Events are scheduled across the country to commemorate the Sept. 17, 1787, adoption of the Constitution.
Although politicians often invoke the Constitution while debating or campaigning, the way they do it has changed in recent years. In past decades, individual rights issues, such as civil rights, freedom of speech and abortion dominated constitutional debate. Now, dialogue is focused on “structural issues” that define the limits of the federal government’s authority.
One example is the recent debate regarding the constitutionality of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in the United States, said Greg Maggs, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.
“We’re not arguing about individual rights so much now as we’re arguing about the power of Congress,” he said.
The scope of government’s power has been debated ever since the Constitution was crafted. The 1804 Louisiana Purchase was fiercely opposed by many early Americans who said that move was unconstitutional.
Although the Constitution was designed to be a bulwark against tyranny and monarchy, the nation’s early leaders would have been hard-pressed to predict its longevity, Mr. Eisner said.
“I think if the framers could see that they built a framework that is enduring, where hierocracy and monarchy could not get a hook, they’d be thrilled,” he said.
But if the experimental document had failed to hold the fledgling nation together, the Founding Fathers may have abandoned a representational government and turned to an option more traditional for the time: monarchy.
There is little doubt that the framers borrowed ideas - or at least inspiration - from state constitutions that were written earlier, but scholars agree that the U.S. Constitution is among the most unique legal documents ever written.
“The [Constitution’s] fundamental framework - the concept that dividing power is the way to balance it, and that no branch of government has ultimate authority, and that fundamentally this is a republic that rules at the pleasure of the people and that we the people are both starting and managing this engine - had never been done before,” Mr. Eisner said.