Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Revolutionary America

It is good in these times when we speak of things American and constitutional that we remind ourselves just how different America is now from what it was upon its birth. America in the late 1700's was a continent with civilization at its edge, and an endless wilderness that allowed any European man the ability to get as far away from other men as his means of movement and survival allowed. The population was less than 4 million people. The main thoroughfares from colony to colony might have been called roads, but were only dirt trails by modern standards. Most people died within 30 miles of where they were born. Only white men had full citizenship. A letter took 2 weeks to travel from Charleston to Boston. Soldiers in war were far more likely to die from disease and infection than in battle. Smallpox killed thousands. Weapons were slow firing muskets and knives. There were no electric lights.

It is important when thinking about the constitution and what the intent of the founders was to do so in the context of the world in which they lived. It is also worth considering Jefferson's suggestion that we have a constitutional convention every generation. Brilliant as the founders were, it is unreasonable to think they could conceive fully of a society such as our modern one. We need a new constitution. Don't believe me? Quick, what is the third amendment to the Constitution? Don't know? No doubt most Americans don't, even those who know amendments one, two and four. Yet it was the third thing the founders thought important enough to specifically enunciate.

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