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How Can We Fix the Constitution?

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Constitution Smackdown!

Our founding document is losing out to Canada? A Daily Show writer protests.

The Constitutional Convention.
The Constitutional Convention.

It’s hard to believe that of all the supposed threats to the United States Constitution—super Pacs, activist judges, termites at the National Archives—the greatest menace to our founding document would be Canadians.  And yet, a study soon to be published in the NYU Law Review and previewed in the New York Times, reveals the ugly truth:  “The U.S. Constitution appears to be losing its appeal as a model for constitutional drafters elsewhere.”  What has taken its place as the world’s next top model?  The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

D'oh!  Canada?!

Never mind what makes Canada's constitution so special.  Probably something to do with hockey, or the inalienable right to poutine, or securing the blessings of Rick Moranis. Pay attention to the important part of the study. The part about the United States. About, you know, us. Twenty-five years ago, 94 percent of the world's constitutions used ours as a model—160 of the 170 countries then in existence—but today, fledgling democracies take a look at our founding charter and keep on shopping.

Shame on them? Well, sure. But shame on us, too. We have dozens of reasons to be proud of our Constitution—for starters, one preamble, seven articles, and 27 course-correcting amendments, not to mention its Guinness record-worthy status as the longest-surviving written charter of any national government* on earth—yet few Americans have bothered to read it. Barely one infour remember doing so—fewer than have read a brick-sized novel about a boy wizard with an English accent and a magic wand.

Those that do remember, remember poorly. In 2009, Speaker of the House John Boehner proclaimed that "We hold these truths to be self-evident" was his favorite part of the Constitution; unfortunately, it’s in the Declaration of Independence. When the newly assembled 112th Congress read the entire Constitution aloud on the floor of the House—a stunt to prove their fealty to the document—they accidentally skipped parts of Articles IV and V. For two hours, no one noticed.

You’d think this would bother the Supreme Court. Defending the Constitution is in their job description. Heck, it is their job description. And yet, visiting Egypt earlier this year, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg advised Egyptians, "I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012." Et tu, Ruthe? Justice Antonin Scalia, the man perhaps most identified with preserving the original meaning of the Constitution, often revels in pronouncing it "dead," a petrified remnant of an era long past. He means “dead” as a compliment, but still, that's not exactly a killer sales pitch. And if we don't value it, or bother reading it—and if our justices sworn to uphold it don't cheerlead for it—why should we expect other countries to care about it? It’s a fair question.

But hold on, eh? The big surprise here isn't that the Constitution is no longer a model for all democracies. The shocker is that it ever was one, for any democracy.

This isn’t just me talking. The moment the iron gall ink was dry in 1787, the Framers themselves knew they had laid an egg. George Washington himself wished it "had been made more perfect." Benjamin Franklin could stomach it only "with all its faults."

Let’s be honest: the Constitution they wrote is a hot mess. Our founding document doesn't mention slavery, or democracy, or even Facebook. It is based on the Magna Carta, which I’m pretty sure is British. It plays favorites among the states, giving Wyoming, home to no major league sports franchises, as many senators as New York, home to not two but three NFL teams* that, among them, have more Super Bowl victories—and more marquee quarterbacks—than we know what to do with. It has typos left uncorrected, smudges that change the meanings of clauses, and misspellings the residents of Pensylvania [sic] surely should have noticed by now. It is coy on Obamacare, campaign finance, and gay marriage, leaving nine berobed judges to figure all that out instead. And the Constitution’s Preamble, its renowned introductory passage, was written by a man with a peg-leg. Which, if you think about it, gives our Constitution hardly a leg to stand on.

Thomas Jefferson saw the writing on the parchment when he declared, in a letter to James Madison, that "every constitution ... naturally expires at the end of 19 years." By Jefferson's math, the Constitution has been dead for over two centuries. The correct diagnosis, then, is not merely that “the Constitution has seen better days,” as Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times, it’s that the Constitution has seen too many days. Per Jefferson, it died in 1808. What we have now is a zombie Constitution.

I humbly submit that it is time to revive our long-dead document. To place an order to form a More Perfect Union. Because while I must admire the writings of James Madison and his “assembly of demigods” in Philadelphia, I take to heart the words of Jefferson: “The earth belongs always to the living generation.” He was, of course, talking about me. I am a member of that living generation. And assuming that you are reading this—and that you are not a zombie—you are, too.

For my part, I have spent the last three years (nights and weekends, mainly) consulting with Jefferson, and confabbing with Madison. To research my book Me the People—in which I have rewritten the entire Constitution of the United States—I flew to Greece, the birthplace of democracy. I bused to Philly, the home of independence. I even, if you can believe it, read the Constitution of the United States.

As our wily neighbor from the north vies for global constitutional dominance, I only regret that I have but one opinion to give for my country. But together, We the People can fight back against They the Canucks. So join me, won’t you? I call on you, my fellow patriots, to rise up. To pay every price, and bear every burden to keep America’s founding document the Best Founding Document Ever. Forget Occupy Wall Street. To you I say, Occupy Independence Hall. Or at least, help me rewrite the Constitution. Propose a change. Revise a clause. Suggest your very own amendment to ratify. And submit an amendment by clicking the "Enter Your Idea" button. Then come right back to comment on other Slate readers’ ideas. Slate staffers and others will stop by from time to time to present their own modest proposals for improving on the founders’ work; tell us why we’re right, and where we’re wrong. You can also send your proposals to @kevinbleyer and @Slate, hashtag #methepeople. Voting will end June 19 and we’ll announce the winners, fittingly, in time for Independence Day. It’s not much, but it’s what @thomasjefferson would do. #every19years

Corrections, June 1, 2012: This article originally called the U.S. Constitution “the longest-surviving written charter of any government on earth.” The constitution of Massachusetts predates it, though among national charters, the U.S. Constitution is the longest-surviving. The article also originally referred to New York’s two NFL teams. There are three: the Jets, the Giants, and the Buffalo Bills.

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