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Posted at 4:38 PM ET, 01/ 6/2011

Why the Constitution Congress read was just fine

By Alexandra Petri

Today the Congress reached a new three-fifths compromise: they only read three-fifths of the Constitution!

Well, sort of.

If you consider the Constitution to be the whole body of governing text that has accumulated and been discarded by the American people since 1787, then, yes, they missed a spot or two.

But if you think of it as a living document, this objection seems patently absurd.

"Oh, they're reading the Constitution, but only the parts that haven't been removed from the Constitution," is like saying, "Oh, they're watching The Godfather without the deleted scenes." Of course they are! If the deleted scenes made the movie better, Francis Ford Coppola would have added them to a Criterion Collection DVD by now.

And it's the same with the Constitution. Frankly, I prefer it the way it is now. And to not read the parts that have been removed from it is not to censor it.

The Constitution was created so that it could change and, dare I say, evolve. It was intelligently designed so it could remain viable and fresh, rather than -- as people often do -- ossifying into a self-parody as it aged. It's a national security blanket of sorts -- not only something to be handed to Speaker John Boehner to soothe him when he cries, but something we all can cling to. Like anything that is much-loved, it has been subjected to the frequently destructive whims of those who love it. Sometimes we rip it, sometimes it requires mending. It shows our mistakes -- there's the barely-removed, ill-advised tattoo called Prohibition, probably the worst decision anyone has ever made when drunk -- but it also reveals our growth. As time has passed, it shed its cruel and inhumane sections. Read it 200 years ago, and it was, in many respects, an unjust document. Read it today (unless you're Justice Scalia) and it is a bold guarantor of equal rights for all.

And it is not merely not bad but good that we remember it this way. Yes, it used to contain immoral and ill-conceived propositions. But we took them out! The only thing worse than forgetting that they were once there would be to forget that they no longer are.

True, the Constitution has become a cult of late. There was that National Constitution Reading Day last year, and this House spectacle seems designed to cater to a similar clientele. But as much as people might wish us to think that this means our representatives think of it as something handed down from on high, we know this is not so. The Constitution is not even the Bible -- speaking of books people praise and don't read. If people actually read Leviticus, the world would be paralyzed by constant crises of faith.

But we know the Constitution was not handed down perfectly from on high.

So to compare what happened on the House floor to what happened to Huckleberry Finn is facile and fallacious. We have no right to change the words of Huckleberry Finn. We have every right to change the Constitution. Mark Twain called a classic "a book men praise and don't read." The Constitution is the polar opposite. We praise it, we criticize it, we revere it, we alter it. Indeed, our relation to this document might be best described by the Broadway musical title: I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.

And this is as it should be.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 6, 2011; 4:38 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Congress, Petri  | Tags:  Congress, Constitution, apologies  
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Comments

First - this exercise only trivializes the Constitution. Like the song says, "... pledge allegiance to the wall..." For the teapartiers who love this stuff, it's just another example of leadership-by-bumper-sticker-slogan and in so doing - they trivialize these ever important words of governance.

Second - to leave out sections because they have been changed is to ignore history. Prohibition may have been a mistake rectified, but that's history. And, to omit the three-fifths clause because it was changed pretends "we the people" really meant everyone when it didn't. They can't and should not rewrite history. Will they take the Holocaust out of history books next because it's over?

And now they are going to use the Constitution as a rubric to preview legislation? What's next - an amendment to get rid of the Supreme Court because they won't be needed?

All smoke and mirrors - all illusory - all show and glow with no substance, research, facts, and objectivity. The new majority will not vote because of anything in the Constitution - they will simply vote against the President, just because. Perhaps they should STUDY (not just read) the part in the Constitution about representing people, not voting with blind obedience to some anti-Obama mantra.

All smoke and mirrors. Bumper sticker leadership.

Posted by: jh13 | January 6, 2011 6:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't see how reading the Constitution's revisions detracts from the reading. Unlike movies, this isn't entertainment, nor is it a piece of art, where its past incarnations have no meaning or impact on its current effect.

Reading the parts of the Constitution that have been taken out via amendment adds a lot to the reading. The history and context of its language is essential to how we--and the judiciary in particular--interpret the document. Also, reading the Constitution and all its revisions tends to emphasize the living and changing nature of the document. Finally, reading it fully would expose the original document as flawed, and the Founders as human, rather than demigods.

These are all appropriate reasons to look at the document with its full history intact.

I do think of the Constitution as a living document, but it is not patently absurd to ask that its retracted parts be read. On the contrary, it is patently essential to understand the changes it has come through to understand it now.

Posted by: pseudo999 | January 6, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

What seems "patently absurd" is that many of the people who would use the Living Constitution argument to justify how it was read today would decry the notion of a Living Constitution in choosing whether they support a judicial nominee for the Supreme Court.

This exercise was a sham, and the white-washing of the US Constitution today proves it. The Founders weren't perfect, the history of the United States isn't perfect, and today Congress tried to pretend that this very important document was not originally written with some very wrong ideas.

Would you propose that a seventh grader in a US History class not read the three-fifths clause? Do schools teach it to instill hatred of their country? No. Reading the Constitution with its blemishes shows a truly marvelous part of our country: that for all of the mistakes that are made, eventually we right the wrongs.

Posted by: jm325 | January 6, 2011 6:54 PM | Report abuse

These are very intelligent and persuasive comments, so far. Even Petri makes an intelligent point, although most Harvard graduates wouldn't call the Constitution, "a national security blanket."

What everyone fails to realize is that House members have to read this "security blanket" OUT LOUD! Also, they are not really reading the Constitution. They are giving a campaign speech.

I'm all for leaving the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, but I don't think high school students should have to read it OUT LOUD.

Just for fun, I turned on Text-to-Speech on my Kindle, and had it read a choice page of Huck Finn to one of my African-American friends. He threw the thing against the wall after the 3rd n-word!

So I understand why no Congressman in his right mind would read the racist parts of the original Constitution out loud. But I still think the history lesson is intact. It's pretty obvious from the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery that slavery must have existed before it.

And it should be obvious from the 14th and 19th Amendments that if you call a woman "sweetcheeks" today, you won't have a job tomorrow.
===
This is the official explanation:

A Goodlatte aide explained that the Constitution will be read in its most modern, amended form. This will prevent lawmakers from having to recite politically uncomfortable portions, notably the provisions on the “three-fifths compromise” under which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation.

http://thehill.com/homenews/house/136313-the-peoples-house-takes-up-we-the-people

Posted by: divtune | January 6, 2011 8:40 PM | Report abuse

If the Republicans did not also pretend that the Constitution is frozen in time at the point the founding fathers set it down, this farce would just be humorous. Being as they are the tribe of "strict constitutionalists", this is nothing less than another avoidance of the reality of an evolving document.

Posted by: veritasinmedium | January 6, 2011 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't the Congress have done their homework in 7th grade civics class like the rest of us? This spectacle is ridiculous. They have work to do for heaven's sake!

Posted by: NWGirl | January 7, 2011 1:43 AM | Report abuse

I wanted to add that indeed looking at the errors is important.

The 3/5 Clause itself was not racist, it was the opposite. It was a compromise that allowed the North to gain *some* foot hold against the South in an effort to abolish slavery. Had slaves been counted as a whole person for the purposes of representation (but not allowed to vote) then the South would have had even more control of the country.

Now when you get to the 14th Amendment, there is the phrase "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the *whole number* of persons in each State"

Someone later on might ask "Why would they specifically say whole people, wouldn't you logically count a person whole?" Today yes, but at one point in time it was needed to not do that. And that is why we need to be reminded of why we did so.

Now as far as the 18th Amendment and Prohibition. I personally don't have a problem with making alchohol illegal. However, the reason I think that this amendment is trully special is that it is the only amendment that specifically takes away rights from the individual person. It is also the only amendment that has a another amendment voiding it.

That is huge. Because what it says, to me, is that while the constitution has numerous provision limiting the power of the government only one time did they try to use to limit the individual...and it failed. So when I hear people talk about adding something like say, an amendment for the definition of marriage I am reminded that the constitution cannot be used to take rights away from people. It can only be used to protect us.

This is why knowing the 18th and 21st are important. They are symbiotic of each other. In order to understand one, you must understand the other.

Posted by: westrock | January 7, 2011 3:32 AM | Report abuse

The Republicans & Libertarians only chose the parts that suit them, and forget the Founding Fathers dictated their cult beliefs. Each one spoke for all their state and --WE THE PEOPLE-- had no say. Only ones who owned land could vote, no people of color, or especially women. Is this where they wish to take us back to??? Also, what was the frame of mind of the Founding Fathers?? They grew hemp for many reasons, as well as smoking because it was better than tobacco, drank alcohol because the water was poor, and as said before most all belonged to the same cult and thought the same way. It all comes down to dictatorship, and who will be the Dictators---Republicans or fascist Libertarians??? Remember the American Liberty League??????

Posted by: granny02 | January 7, 2011 5:13 AM | Report abuse

Read the book-Cracks in the Constitution.

Posted by: granny02 | January 7, 2011 6:04 AM | Report abuse

Read the book-Cracks in the Constitution.

Posted by: granny02 | January 7, 2011 6:10 AM | Report abuse

Nice save.........not. That blooper was not done intentionally Alexandra. I watched it. It would have gone off a lot better if Children had have read it with their teacher there to keep them on track.

Next time the Republicans want to educate US so sanctimoniously...they need to do their homework prior to airing it live by satalite. Tell them to read it word for word in order, all the way through and discuss the footnotes and etc. afterward.

WE THE PEOPLE all know they're way over paid for the work they produce. Tell them to dispense with the hooplah and bullpuckey and get to work like the professionals they'd like US to think they are instead of their constant CAMPAIGNING that they should save for their town halls and actual campaign platforms. There will be H-E double hockey sticks if they don't get some serious bipartisan work done this session. AMERICA IS WAITING.
Not just jobs either...DECENT FULL TIME JOBS w/benefits
NOT Just Health Care Insurance Reform but a real viable solution that works for every citizen.
Energy issues need to be viable renewable and now.
GET OFF YOUR CAMPAIGN STAGES and get your work done CONGRESS.

Posted by: alaskansheilah | January 7, 2011 7:02 AM | Report abuse

Nice save.........not. That blooper was not done intentionally Alexandra. I watched it. It would have gone off a lot better if Children had have read it with their teacher there to keep them on track.

Next time the Republicans want to educate US so sanctimoniously...they need to do their homework prior to airing it live by satalite. Tell them to read it word for word in order, all the way through and discuss the footnotes and etc. afterward.

WE THE PEOPLE all know they're way over paid for the work they produce.

Tell them to dispense with the hooplah and bullpuckey and get to work like the professionals they'd like US to think they are instead of their constant CAMPAIGNING that they should save for their town halls and actual campaign platforms.

There will be H-E-double hockey sticks if they don't get some serious bipartisan work done this session. SHOW U.S RESULTS!
AMERICA IS WAITING.

NO MORE BAILOUTS, Balance that budget if you have to back track and actually tax someone. FREE LUNCHES should not go to the RICH. Not just jobs either...DECENT Permanent FULL TIME JOBS w/benefits. NOT Just Health Care Insurance Reform but a real viable solution that works for every citizen with options. Maybe insurance rates won't double next week if we can buy into a Govt. Insurance w/premiums that are actually capped. (called competition)
Energy issues need to be viable renewable and now.
GET OFF YOUR CAMPAIGN STAGES and get your work done CONGRESS.

Posted by: alaskansheilah | January 7, 2011 7:11 AM | Report abuse

How many thousands of tax payer dollars were spent on their salaries and benefits so they could waste time with this stunt? This goes for both sides!

Get to WORK, Congress!

Posted by: janeway1 | January 7, 2011 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I had to read this twice to make it sure it wasn’t parody. If it was parody, it was ill conceived and ill borne. Please note that nothing, nothing has been removed from the Constitution. It has been amended so that certain parts are no longer effective. The life blood of a half-million Americans was shed so that we could make the most important of those amendments. To argue that the Constitution was read as amended is the mark of a low grade moron. What the House GOP leadership did yesterday was equivalent to teaching American history without the mention of slavery or the Civil War. The fact that slavery no longer exists today does not mean that it never existed. Reading a touchy-feely, new-age, abridged version of the Constitution constituted a crime against history, reason and truth.

Posted by: codexjust1 | January 7, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I thought the intent of the reading was not to give a history lesson or rehash old wrongs, but to remind the Congress under which law they are now bound and sworn to uphold? In that respect, there's no need to read a repealed law other than to say "Amendment 18: Repealed by Amendment 21".....

Posted by: LNER4472 | January 7, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

I suppose now, with this fine example being set by the US House of Representatives, that I should start reading, before every single trip I am about to take in my car, the DOT 'rules of the road' book.
What do I do when there are no road signs in view? Read the DOT book? Or just apply 'common sense'?
...Bummer.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | January 7, 2011 9:59 AM | Report abuse

At least the Republicans have given me another comedy channel to watch: C-SPAN!

Posted by: waynenolen | January 7, 2011 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I will say this: creating an analogy between Huck Finn and the Constitution is patently a false analogy. So we revere the constitution, but can change it, while we laugh at Finn, but must leave it as is? What foolishness!

Posted by: Jose5 | January 7, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

The fact that it can be ammended is not the same as calling it a "living document."

The Constitution, as it was orginally written, included the specific means as to how it can be amended. This was intentional. It is 100% compatible with orginalism. Originalism is the Constitution taken in context.

The concept of a "living document" is that we don't need to go through the amendment process to change what the Constitution means. We can just interperet it any way we feel like right now. The "living document" philosophy is the Constitution take OUT of context.

If it is a "living document" then it means nothing and we have an elected dictatorship in the form of congress.

Posted by: BradG | January 7, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Petri writes: "The Constitution is not even the Bible -- speaking of books people praise and don't read. If people actually read Leviticus, the world would be paralyzed by constant crises of faith." Well, at least the leftist media would be paralyzed by a crisis of faith ... No, wait, maybe they already did read Leviticus.

Just count me as a "nobody" in Petri's mind, I suppose.

Posted by: tomeddlem | January 8, 2011 10:35 AM | Report abuse

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