Constitution reading inspiring, disheartening

The Preamble begins, “We the People.” The evening of March 26, a large group gathered at the Haymarket Café in Northampton to read the United States Constitution and its amendments. The thought was, we talk about the Constitution a lot but we actually don’t often read it.

We began appropriately with Section 1 of Article I, which says, “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” Section 8 of that article enumerates, that is, specifically lists, the kinds of laws Congress has the power to enact. By enumerating Congress’ authority the founders intended to establish the boundaries of the power of the central government.

To put an exclamation point on this limitation, the drafters included in the Bill of Rights the Tenth Amendment that reserves all rights not explicitly granted the federal government “to the states respectively, or to the people.” The Tenth Amendment makes Trump’s executive order to federalize and commandeer the local police as ICE agents unconstitutional.

Another enumerated power is the authority “to declare war.” But Congress long ago ceded that power to the president. It has not issued a formal declaration of war since the day after Pearl Harbor.

Then we came to Section 9, which includes the emolument clause, recently made famous by Trump. “[N]o person holding any office ... shall ... accept ... any present [or] emolument from any King, Prince, or foreign state.” Emolument means compensation or prerequisites, or – an old definition – “advantage.” It was impossible to not consider the Trump family holdings.

Article II provides that, “[t]he executive power shall be vested in the President of the United States.” Section 2 of that article invests in the president “the power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to appoint . . . judges of the Supreme Court.” Nothing in the Constitution suggests that this provision is suspended during the last year of a presidential term.

Impeachment is first mentioned in Section 2 of Article II. That provision gives the president the power generally to grant pardons for all manner of transgressions. It makes one exception. Pardon is not possible “in cases of impeachment.”

Soon after reading those words, an acknowledgement of familiarity greeted the reading of Section 4: “The President . . . shall be removed from office on impeachment (essentially an indictment from the House of Representatives) for and conviction of (by the Senate) treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Article III creates the judicial branch. A murmur went through the crowd when we again read and heard the word “impeachment:” “The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury.” The prominence of impeachment in the Constitution made it impossible to not think about Trump and Putin.

My part of the reading was the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments. The drafters at the Constitutional Convention couldn’t agree on including those protections in the document itself but worked out a compromise: the states would ratify the Constitution first; a Bill of Rights would be drafted and approved by Congress and sent to the states for adoption soon thereafter. And that’s what happened.

The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion (the establishment clause) or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (the free exercise clause); or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

While listening, I couldn’t help but cringe at the derogation of religious freedom caused by Trump’s Muslim ban. Reading the First Amendment also conjured Trump’s threats to destroy the free press by allowing the media to be sued to death, not to mention his overt attempts to disembowel the public’s right to know.

The concept of privacy is deeply embedded in the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees “The right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . [from] unreasonable searches and seizures.” Trump’s criminal justice plan, you will recall, is to institute a nationwide stop-and-frisk policy that would allow any cop to stop (seize) and frisk (search) any person for any reason, or none. It would shred the Fourth Amendment.

Sunday evening was inspiring. We shared the words that created an infrastructure of freedom – to be sure with its horrifying acceptance of slavery and its treatment of women as chattel.

The evening necessarily was disheartening, too. Although the reading by many people in our community, including immigrants and a refugee, made us appreciate the resilience of the Constitution, it also displayed its fragility and limitations. It put under a bright light the potential impermanence of, what the Preamble describes as, “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”


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