The USA remains the world's most important country. You cannot understand it without being familiar with its Constitution.
Posted 25 July 2020
In my professional career as a tax adviser, there was never a substitute for reading the client’s original contractual documents, the text of statute law and the full transcript of the judgement in tax cases.
However, I developed this habit even earlier in life. That is why I read both the Quran and the Bible from cover to cover as a teenager and student.
One small paperback which I read in my early twenties (bought July 1972) was the original 1969 edition of “The Constitution of the United States: An Introduction” by Floyd G. Cullop.
Even though space constraints occasionally lead me to discard old books, I have always kept that one safe, and had no problems finding it while writing this page.
It contains both an elementary explanation of the Constitution as well as the full text as the Constitution stood in 1969. As a study guide, it has many tests, with answers.
Being familiar with the Constitution has helped my understanding of US politics ever since. Unless you understand provisions such as the separation of powers, the rules for elections, and the limitations on the authority of the President, it is very easy to misunderstand American political news.
Furthermore, without properly knowing the Constitution, you can be easily misled by critics. For example, I often see people citing the “three-fifths” provision in Article 1 Section 2 as the practice of deplorable racism by the Founding Fathers, complaining that “slaves were only considered to be 3/5 of a human being.”
I have copied the full provision below.
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
The above complaint fails to understand what was involved in the arguments that led to the above compromise wording.
At that time, the 13 newly independent states were divided between “free states” (which had abolished slavery) and “slave states” that practised slavery.
The dispute between them was about the relative voting power in Congress that would be held by representatives of the slave states. There was no question about slaves being entitled to vote; they were slaves. The slave states wanted their slaves to be counted, one for one just like free people, in assessing how many representatives the slave states would have. That would have significantly increased the relative voting power of the slave states in Congress.
Conversely, the free states wanted slaves counted for zero in assessing slave states’ voting power.
The "3/5" was a compromise. The lower that number, the more we should approve of the Constitution if we oppose slavery. To base an accusation of racism on the number being "3/5" rather than “1” is to completely misunderstand the purpose of that provision in the Constitution.
In the whole of human history, two constitutions stand from all others in terms of their historical significance.
The first is the agreement (we do not have a written original) known as the Constitution of Medina. This was probably the first written constitution.
It matters because of its role in the early history of Islam, for what it tells us about the approach of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to dealings with non-Muslims, and for its significance to approximately 1.8 billion Muslims today.
I briefly covered the provisions in the talk at Nazarene Theological College on my page "Lecture on Islam to Christian theology students." In the talk I go through it very quickly, with a starting time of 57:25 and ending at 1:00:18. While the coverage in the talk is brief, you can also read slides 68-88 by downloading them using the link on that page.
I wrote about the historical aspects in my page Review of "A History of Jewish - Muslim Relations: From the Origins to the Present Day" edited by Abdelwahab Meddeb and Benjamin Stora in the section "The pragmatic Constitution of Medina."
While other countries had democratic governments before, this was the first major occasion where the representatives of a population came together to create a new form of government from first principles.
For well over 200 years, it has inspired people around the world, with its underlying principles such as: the powers of government derive from the consent of the people, the powers of the different arms of government are separated, citizens have fundamental inalienable rights.
That is why every person who lives in a free society, or wishes to be free, should become familiar with the US Constitution.
It is a document that has stood the test of time.
It is easy for a constitution to hold together when times are good. However, the Constitution has survived periods of enormous difficulty in American society, the worst being the American Civil War. Today, it is the Constitution that stands between President Trump and his fantasies that once elected the president has unlimited power.
In one sense, the book has lasted well, having gone through many editions. Unfortunately it is now only available used (or at a ridiculous price for a new copy.)
I would recommend instead starting by downloading a free PDF document available from the United States Senate website.
The Constitution of the United States of America, S.PUB.103-21 (1994) (pdf), prepared by the Office of the Secretary of the Senate with the assistance of Johnny H. Killian of the Library of Congress in 1994, provided the original text of each clause of the Constitution with an accompanying explanation of its meaning and how that meaning changed over time.
This document is something that will repay reading from beginning to end. The Constitution is not long, and its language is clear, certainly with the benefit of the added explanations.
After that, I recommend a brief look at the website of Cornell Law School contains an excellent page “U.S. Constitution Annotated” which introduces itself as follows:
This edition of the Congressional Research Service's (“CRS”) U.S. Constitution Annotated is a hypertext interpretation of the CRS text, updated to the currently published version. It links to Supreme Court opinions, the U.S. Code, and the Code of Federal Regulations, as well as enhancing navigation through search, breadcrumbs, linked footnotes and tables of contents.
This is excellent for reference purposes, but not something one can read from beginning to end.
I guarantee that the time you spend familiarising yourself with the US constitution will be amply rewarded in a deeper understanding of the politics of what is still by far the most important country in the world.