Harper's Weekly 02/24/1866


AMENDING THE CONSTITUTION.

IT is now nearly eighty years since the Con-
stitution of the United States was framed.
The sagacity which moulded it is attested by
the fact that it has adapted itself so long to the
necessities of a nation which has increased and
extended beyond precedent. No written na-
tional constitution has endured so long and
prosperously. But wise and skillful as it is, it
was the work of men, and, like all human work,
it was not perfect. The fathers who made it
foresaw that Time would reveal the necessity
of change in some of its details, while its great
principles of Justice and Liberty would remain
forever immutable. They provided, therefore,
for its amendment by means which should not
in the least degree imperil the stability of the
Government established by it, and various
amendments have been already adopted.


The experience of eighty years has shown
that in two cardinal points the Constitution
was defective. These points were not un-
known to its framers; but they were those
which made the adoption of any constitution
doubtful, and they saw that, to form the
Union, some concession was essential. The
instrument, therefore, did not speak plainly
and decisively of either point. It did not in
terms destroy all claim of State Sovereignty,
and it did not secure the equal rights of all
the people of the country; and it is now clear
that from that double obscurity the civil war
proceeded. The injustice was continued by
some of the States, and the doctrine of States
Sovereignty was simultaneously inculcated in
those States that a convenient constitutional
pretext might be found for destroying the na-
tion in order to maintain the injustice. When
the crisis came the rebellion justified itself as
constitutional, and so thoroughly had the pub-
lic mind been poisoned that the power of re-
sistance was almost paralyzed. But it rallied,
and the struggle was fierce and long, ending in
the assertion written in the life-blood of thou-
sands and thousands of American citizens that
the doctrine of State Sovereignty is not to be
tolerated under any pretense, and that equal
rights shall be universal.


It is obvious that after such a struggle the
Constitution must be amended; for if we are
to have a Constitution it ought certainly to ex-
press the most solemn convictions of the people
sealed by their blood. And if the Constitution
is ever to be enlarged or modified in any man-
ner now is the time. The war is the ghastly
proof of the weakness of certain parts of the
instrument, and we can never strengthen those
parts so securely as now. It is because this is
the universal national conviction that the eman-
cipation amendment was so readily accepted.


But the moment that was adopted it changed
certain fundamental provisions, and made oth-
ers necessary. Thus the basis of representa-
tion and taxation has hitherto been the whole
number of free persons, and, excluding untaxed
Indians, three-fifths of all other persons. But
the emancipation amendment makes the three-
fifths five-fifths who have no political power,
and, if they are to be thus counted, a gross in-
equality of representation is created in favor of
those who are most alienated from the Govern-
ment; and, still further, the consequence will
be that, in the very section which is thus unjust-
ly preferred, nearly half the population will be
taxed without any representation whatever.
An amendment to avoid so absurd a result is
therefore imperatively necessary; and, under
such circumstances, to complain of “tinkering
the Constitution,” is to complain of simple
justice. The New Hampshire Democratic
Convention and the Virginia Legislature are
opposed to any constitutional amendment. But
such opposition merely proves both its justice
and necessity.


In amending the Constitution it will be al-
ways remembered by wise men that it is the
fundamental law, and should contain only per-
manent provisions. Temporary objects are
better attained by Congressional acts. Yet
the fundamental law of the United States will
be manifestly imperfect until it guarantees
equal rights for every one of the people. We
shall gladly hail and support every practicable
measure toward this great result; and, mean-
while, let every man who knows that peace and
progress are sure only as they are founded upon
justice, do what he can to persuade public opin-
ion to believe it.



Website design © 2000-2004 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2004 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to webmaster@harpweek.com