Alexis de Tocqueville was, and remains, one of the world’s most influential political scholars. In the 1830s, Tocqueville traveled from his home country of revolutionary France to the young United States to uncover our way of life and government.
In Tocqueville’s tome, called Democracy in America, he describes one moment in American history that is undeniably great. A moment when this country’s overconfident self-image was actually justified.
The moment was: Moving from our first constitution to our second.
If you’re not from America, you should know that after the Revolutionary War against the British, America created two constitutions at two different times. The first constitution was called the Articles of Confederation, and it gave lots of power to the state governments of the original colonies. The Articles of Confederation made it difficult to raise money on a federal level, and the document was ultimately inadequate for creating a sense of patriotic, economic, or social unity between the united states.
Late into the first act of the hit musical Hamilton, the show makes an important point about early American history. Our second constitution–the United States Constitution which Hamilton played a role in convincing the public to adopt–was incredibly controversial and difficult to ratify during the late 1700s.
Today however, our second constitution is revered around the world as a model for how to set up a government. Dozens of democracies like Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Nigeria have used ours as a model.
But let’s get back to Tocqueville’s point about America’s greatness. In the course of about a decade, America:
- created a government,
- realized that the entire structure of that government was failing, and
- changed to a new government and constitution with relatively little violence or bloodshed.
It is difficult to overstate just how radical and difficult that third part must have been. In other eras, in other places, it would have taken thousands if not millions of deaths in order to move from one government to another.
So how could America do this? Most likely, it was because America had just finished their war with Britain, so the notion that they were going to immediately jump into a civil war would have been disastrous.
There’s this famous Thomas Jefferson quote that says:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
–Thomas Jefferson, on changing the Constitution.
Of course, I’m not just trying to give you an interesting history lesson right now. The idea of changing the constitution is even more relevant today.
In fact, we should be having Constitutional Conventions every five years.
There are parts of the American constitution that have become helplessly outdated:
- The Electoral College.
- The fact that the Constitution doesn’t explicitly treat Americans of every sexual orientation as equal.
- Between the president and congress, we need a clearer delegation of authority as to who exactly has the power to send American troops to war.
- The right to vote is only protected in theory, not in practice.
- The constitution is obviously not good enough at keeping American presidents from corruption.
- And it’s way too hard to make Amendments!
These are all problems that can and should be resolved. What I learned most from Hamilton is that peacefully changing your government is the most difficult part of having a country, and it’s also the most important.
We should be doing it more.