Skip to main content

The year that changed the world

By Akhil Reed Amar, Special to CNN
September 18, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
An honor guard stands next to original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
An honor guard stands next to original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This week marks the anniversary of the unveiling of the U.S. Constitution in 1787
  • Akhil Amar: Over the following 12 months, America debated the ground rules for a new kind of democracy
  • On voting rights, the U.S. has recently taken backward steps; free speech is flourishing, he says
  • Amar: Constitutional self-government rules half the globe, thanks to U.S. example

Editor's note: Akhil Reed Amar is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and the author of "America's Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By." (2012). This piece was written in association with the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution.

(CNN) -- This week we mark Constitution Day, commemorating the electrifying moment on September 17, 1787 when the Philadelphia framers went public with their proposed Constitution.

Over the ensuing year, Americans debated and ratified this audacious plan, and thereby gave birth to a far better world. Let's recall the central features of that year that changed everything so that we can measure how far we have come, and how far we still need to go, to redeem the Constitution's promise.

After its public unveiling in mid-September, the Philadelphia plan was put to a vote across the continent, in a process that let vastly more ordinary folk than ever before in human history decide how they would be governed.

Akhil Amar
Akhil Amar

In most states, standard property qualifications were lowered or eliminated for this special ratification election. New York, for the first time in its history, let all adult free male citizens vote -- no property qualifications, no race tests, no religious qualifications, no literacy tests -- for ratifying-convention delegates who in turn voted yes on the Constitution several months later.

Later generations have nobly built upon this foundation, repeatedly adding the words "the right to vote" in a grand colonnade of amendments promising a permanent end to all sorts of electoral discrimination and exclusions. That's undeniable progress.

But America no longer leads the world in the integrity and inclusiveness of our elections; several states are now shamelessly trying to roll back voting rights; the Supreme Court has renounced a key piece of the landmark Voting Rights Act; and Congress has yet to mend the tattered statute.

Modern American free speech is a happier story, with robust free expression in almost every corner of the land. Here, too, we have 1787-88 to thank, a year when Americans dramatically embodied free speech in the very process of establishing the Constitution. No one was censored that year, and the document's opponents were not forever demonized or voted off the island.

In fact, several of the Constitution's early critics came to rank among the new nation's highest leaders -- for example, President James Monroe, Vice Presidents George Clinton and Elbridge Gerry, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.

The two camps that had sharply divided over the Constitution's ratification -- the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists -- soon thereafter found common ground in supporting a Bill of Rights. Is it too much to hope that today's polarized parties might learn something from this inspiring example, and try to find something -- anything! -- that they can agree upon?

Perhaps because the Constitution's supporters did not try to muzzle skeptics, these skeptics, when outvoted, acquiesced. In several states, the document squeaked through only by the narrowest of margins -- for example, 30 to 27 in New York.

Yet everyone accepted the basic principle of majority rule, even though the document itself did not explicitly specify this voting rule. Here, too, there are lessons for today.

The entrenched filibuster has made the current Senate a deeply dysfunctional body, yet some senators seem to think that a supermajority-rule system has deep roots in founding principles and practices. These senators are mistaken.

The early Senate followed the principles of 1787-88, and the key principle that year in every single state ratifying convention was simple majority rule. Everyone got to speak; and then votes ensued, and simple majorities prevailed. Period.

Finally, let's note the extraordinary religious inclusion championed by the document first unveiled in mid-September 1787. Unlike most revolutionary state constitutions and the contemporaneous rules generally in place elsewhere on the planet, the Constitution opened its doors to office seekers of all faiths and philosophies.

Last year, three of the four men atop the major party tickets -- Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Joe Biden -- were not members of the mainstream Protestant churches that dominated society at the founding. Today's speaker of the House is a Catholic, the Senate majority leader is a Mormon, and no Protestant sits on the current U.S. Supreme Court.

One is tempted to say, "only in America!" but in fact there are other modern countries that are democratic and religiously pluralist. However, many of these democracies have been powerfully influenced by the American constitutional experience.

Before the Constitution went public in 1787, pluralistic democracy existed almost nowhere on the planet, outside America. Thus it had always been throughout recorded history. Today, constitutional self-government reigns across half the globe, and it does so thanks largely to the legal, political, cultural, moral and military success of the American constitutional project.

In short, the world is becoming more American (and America itself, thanks to trade and immigration, is becoming more global). So we should not say "only in America," but rather "only because of America" -- and in particular, because of America's Constitution and because of the year that changed everything.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Akhil Amar.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT