We the People Learn to Interpret the Constitution
By Tanner Probst
"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."
I remember having to memorize these lines in elementary school. Close your eyes and try to recite them . . . I got most of the way through. The iconic preamble to the Constitution spotlights the importance of America’s most famous document—not only to history but also to our daily safety, comfort, and freedom. But, for all its importance, the document that follows that intro can be confusing. It is composed of the preamble, seven articles, and 27 amendments (including the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments). Not only is it long, but it also has proven to be notoriously difficult to interpret. For example, here is a single sentence from the Constitution:
"The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate."
If you understand that sentence on your first read, please explain it to me, because I don’t. Luckily, we found a great resource that gives descriptions of each section of the Constitution, explains it in simple terms, and provides interpretations for every clause. The people who designed the Interactive Constitution call it a tool for you to “learn about the text, history, and meaning of the U.S. Constitution from leading scholars of diverse legal and philosophical perspectives.” Head over to the Interactive Constitution to check it out!
Tanner Probst is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves in an academic-based community service class under Professor Lorene Cary, helping to share stories promoting civil engagement while working with the youth voter registration initiative Vote That Jawn.