By Student Blogger Danny Hergott
In honor of Constitution Day, constitutional law Prof. Mark Rosen presented his thoughts on the founding document of the United States of America. The event was held at Chicago-Kent and attracted a diverse audience of students, faculty members and interested members of the public.
Prof. Rosen began by immediately admitting his bias: "I love the Constitution." (Perhaps constitutional law professors are required to publicly admit their love of the Constitution on Constitution Day. See here for other Constitution Day requirements.) In any event, Prof. Rosen possesses more than strong feelings for the document; he is an erudite scholar of its history and interpretation. See some of his work here.
With his personal feelings known, Prof. Rosen cut straight to the heart of the matter: Why does this document bind us over two hundred and twenty two years later? This question was underscored by a brief description of the document's humble and certainly undemocratic (if not illegal) origins. So, why do we still care about a text fraught with spelling errors ("Penyslvania" for instance) and currently displayed under conditions not seen since Jabba the Hut imprisoned Han Solo in Carbonite? The short answer is because our Constitution works.
But why does the federal Constitution work so well? Prof. Rosen's answer is because it does so little (while also doing so much). First what it does do: 1) it dictates the basic structure of the government—no small task considering it was the first government of its kind; and 2) it articulates a set of ideals that United States citizens identify with. That is, what makes us American is just as much tied to the freedom of speech and religion as it is to baseball and apple pie (and maybe the Beatles). Prof. Rosen suggests the Constitution's success in these two areas, setting up the basics of government and defining our political identity, is essential to its vitality over time.
Still, what the Constitution does not do may be even more important. Other than certain formal requirements, such as stating the minimum age of senators and specifying that Presidents need to be a natural born citizen, the Constitution does very little in terms of delegating specific tasks. The language of the Constitution is broad and the text itself is brief, a little over 4,400 words (roughly 150 Tweets). That means, not only is the Constitution vague, but it is silent on many crucial issues. Prof. Rosen proposes that this silence—what the Constitution does not do—is critical to engage future generations. This is because what is not specified, for instance the exact contours of the Freedom of Speech, are left for others to hammer out. As we debate these issues, we engage the Constitution and strengthen our attachment to it.
Ultimately, Prof. Rosen suggests this ongoing debate is what provides the document’s binding power. Rather than providing all of the answers and ending the discourse, it invites deliberation and thoughtfulness. Moreover, it provides a framework to approach novel contemporary issues. In doing so, the Constitution becomes richer, but more importantly, each generation’s personal involvement makes the Constitution their own.