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TASK XIComment on Madison’s words:

“Constitution was "not like the fabled goddess of wisdom the offspring of a single brain [but] ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.”



Text 3

"We the People of the United States"

Originally, those words referred to little more than the ratifiers of the Constitution. But in the nearly two centuries since 1787, numerous amendments have given the phrase new meaning, so that now it signifies all Americans.

In the draft of the Constitution first proposed, the Preamble – closely modeled on the introductory statement of the Articles of Confederation – included no statement of purposes and carefully identified each of thirteen states in the new Union.

However, because the Constitutional Convention had decided that the Constitution would go into effect upon being ratified by nine states, rather than all thirteen, it seemed foolish to list all the states. Anyway, it was by no means clear which states would accept or reject the new charter. So Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania artfully evaded the issue by using the shorthand designation "We the People of the United States." Although Patrick Henry of Virginia subsequently denounced the wording of the Preamble in his state's ratifying convention, demanding to know who the people of the United States were, no delegate to the Convention found fault with the revised wording:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At the time the Constitution was being written, each state had adopted qualifications for voting that excluded many Americans from the political process. The qualifications limited the right to vote to those who could show that they had sufficient property – either in cash or real property – to entitle them to vote. Many states also restricted voting to those who took an oath subscribing to certain religious doctrines, such as a belief in God, or in God and Jesus Christ, or in the Christian religion. Almost nobody even conceived that anyone but sufficiently wealthy white men would vote, and restrictions on who could hold office in the states were even more stringent. The Framers of the Constitution refused to impose similar religious "test oaths" or property qualifications for holding federal positions such as member of the House of Representatives. But they provided that voting qualifications for election to the House would be the same as those set by the states for electing the "popular" branch of their legislatures. Even this provision – which made the Constitution the most liberal and democratic government charter in the world – nevertheless excluded many Americans.

As the Constitution settled into use over the next two hundred years and amendments were added, Americans whom the Framers never dreamed would take part in American politics were included in the national political community. For example, the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed blacks, most of whom were newly freed slaves, the right to vote. Under the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, the Constitution finally recognized women's right to vote – a right that had been recognized in twelve states by 1914.

In 1961, the Twenty-third Amendment extended the right to vote in presidential elections to residents of the District of Columbia – which would have amazed the Framers, who never anticipated that the seat of government would grow to become one of the ten largest cities in the nation, with hundreds of thousands of residents who were effectively disenfranchised, because they did not live in a state. In 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment – by abolishing the poll tax – rejected once and for all the old doctrine that a person had to demonstrate some "stake" to be allowed to vote.

Finally, in 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment guaranteed the right of eighteen-year-olds to vote in federal, state, and local elections. Before this amendment was passed, each state was free to establish its own minimum voting age because the federal Constitution did not do so. Thus, before 1971, while eighteen-year-olds could vote in Georgia and Kentucky, nineteen-year-olds in Alaska and twenty-year-olds in Hawaii, most states had set their minimum voting age at 21.

Thus, two centuries later, "We the People of the United States" means far more than it did in 1787 – and the United States is far more than ever a democracy.

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