Monday, September 17, 2012

Happy Birthday, America!

I think we should celebrate the 225th birthday of the
Constitution with this ridiculously delicious flag
dessert that my lovely and talented wife makes!

We have all been used to celebrating July 4th as "America's Birthday", and with good reason.  That date marks the occasion of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, formally severing our political and colonial ties with Great Britain.  Of course, a great war followed before it was truly a done deal, but were the "united States of America" (as it was written in the Declaration, with a small "u", indicating that the states were merely a united group) actually "the United States of America" (as it was written in the Constitution, with a capital "U", making "United" a part of the name of the new nation) at that time?

Today marks what I might consider the "real" birthday of the United States of America.  On September 17, 1787 - 225 years ago - the Constitutional Congress adopted the Constitution, signed it and sent it to the states for ratification.  After ratification, the Constitution was formally put into effect on March 4, 1789 (so I guess we could make the argument that March 4 is the "real birthday", as well!).

The Constitution was, in fact, more or less the third attempt at making the fledgling country-to-be a unified nation.  In 1774, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Association, but it was quickly apparent that it was inadequate, so in 1776, the Congress began work on the Articles of Confederation, which was completed the next year and ratified in 1781.  After the Revolutionary War, the new nation, not really even a nation yet, but a confederacy of independent states, was seen by many as too weak to hold together, and a  stronger national government was necessary.  Opinions, of course, varied, and vigorously.  But without going over the entire history of the writing and ratification of the Constitution, let me make two observations that I think demonstrate the real genius of this document (and those who wrote it): longevity and durability.

In terms of longevity, the U.S. Constitution has few peers.  It is, in fact, the oldest national constitution still in effect.  According to a University of Chicago Law School study, the average constitution worldwide lasts only about seventeen years before being replaced.  In other words, most constitutions don't even reach voting age!  Even in our own country, we have had nearly 150 state constitutions, an average of about three per state since the founding.

By durability, I mean the Constitution has changed very little in its history.  Only twenty-seven times has it been amended, ten of which came all at once in 1791, so in the ensuing 221 years, only seventeen amendments have been ratified (and two of which offset each other), an average of once every thirteen years.  By comparison, the constitutions of the states have been amended a total of nearly 12,000 times, or an average of 240 per state!  What that seems to signify is that the U.S. Constitution was written specifically enough to get the country started, but generally enough to avoid amendments for every little issue.  True genius.

Interestingly, though, our Constitution deviates significantly from the statistical norms the Chicago study found.  They identified two traits that contribute to the longevity of most constitutions: adaptability and specificity.  In their words:

Adaptability, it appears, is crucial for constitutional survival. In the case of amendment ease, for example, an easily amended constitution (one whose probability of amendment is one standard deviation above the mean) has a 70 percent chance of lasting until age 50 versus 13 percent for those whose amendment probability is estimated at one standard deviation below the mean. Consistent with our expectations we find that constitutions that cover more topics are more durable than shorter ones, suggesting that specificity matters, although length of constitution alone does not seem to increase endurance.  ("The Lifespan of Written Constitutions", Authors:  Thomas Ginsburg, Zachary Elkins, and James Melton, 2009)

As you all know, our Constitution is by no means easy to amend (and that will be a topic for a future blog), yet it endures.  And ours is not very specific on very many topics, as it only runs about 4,500 words over merely seven articles, while the shortest U.S. state constitution goes nearly twice that number of words- most are much longer.

So, how to explain the longevity and durability of our Constitution, which seems to buck the worldwide trend, as the oldest, yet shortest constitution of any sovereign nation still in effect?  I wish there was an easy answer.  Can it be that our Founders were just that much smarter than everyone else?  They were true geniuses and visionaries, to be sure, but people these days have the benefit of hundreds of years of experience and scholarship to draw on, yet are unable to deliver such an enduring document.  Or perhaps does it matter not so much what is in the document specifically, but rather the intent behind the words?  I would argue that, despite the Chicago study's findings, a very detailed, specific and easily changeable document is subject to too much tampering and tinkering to endure for long, and perhaps it is the very simplicity of ours that makes it so strong.  Or is it a case of "national character" and the acceptance of the rule of law, rather than the rule of whim, that helps our republic endure?  In any case, the variables are too may to discuss in a little blog post, but discuss we shall.  Discuss, my friends - and Happy Birthday, America!

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