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Blogs by Ambassador Ray

The Evolution of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment

May 4, 2010

The U.S. Constitution, developed by our nation’s founding fathers, has been the supreme basis of American law for over 200 years.  Since it went into effect on June 21, 1788, it has secured and protected the rights and liberties of all Americans.  Furthermore, it has been an inspiration to people throughout the world who wish to have wise and just Government.

What is not often appreciated, however, is that this document, which is held up as a model for freedom loving people everywhere, did not just miraculously appear.  It was the result of a protracted process of negotiation and compromise, and has been amended 27 times since its adoption.  In the words of James Madison, “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”

The Constitution was written to replace the Articles of Confederation which were not strong enough to coherently govern the collection of 13 colonies with different customs and practices.  The need for regulation of commerce and collective defense was not adequately provided for in the Articles.  Even so, the process of developing a document was long and often contentious.

The First Amendment, often referred to as the Bill of Rights, is an excellent example of this process.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

While today we consider these rights and freedoms basic, they were not provided for in the original Constitution.  There were those among the original founding fathers who believed it unnecessary to write them down.  Fortunately for us today, George Mason of Virginia led the effort to include them in the document that was to become the governing law of the land.  Many Americans of that era believed that no constitution could be considered complete if it did not contain a declaration of the basic rights of the people.  Many of the new states contained these provisions in their state constitutions, and would have refused to ratify the new national Constitution if they were not also included in that document.

We now recognize that protection of these rights is fundamental to the effective functioning and growth of any nation.  One has but to look at the state of nations where they are either not protected, or where they are violated.

It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have a constitution that establishes the structure and power of the central government.  A country is made up of government AND the people.  Any constitution that does not address the rights and protection of the people is only halfway to being acceptable.

Charles A. Ray, Ambassador
May 4, 2010
The Zimbabwean