5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Constitution

Posted: April 24, 2012 in 5 Things You Didn't Know About the Constitution, Category - Heritage Foundation

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Top 5 Things You Didn’t Know about the Constitution

Perhaps you were one of those people who carried around a pocket Constitution before it was cool (or at least before it became a campaign issue). Maybe you already knew about James Madison, Philadelphia, and how many Articles the Convention approved.

But we bet there are still a few things in the Constitution that even the most seasoned conservative didn’t know. You can learn all of these and more in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution—the only clause-by-clause examination of the whole Constitution and how it’s been interpreted over the years. And now its online!

1. Slaves aren’t in the Constitution, but Pirates are.

When the 13th Amendment was ratified, not a single word of the Constitution needed to be deleted. The word “slave” or “slavery” never appears in the Constitution. In fact, the framers refused to use the words—opting instead for persons held in labor—to avoid legitimizing slavery.

Neither does the Constitution classify people according to race—not even in the oft misunderstood Three-fifths Clause. Free blacks in the North and the South were counted on par with whites for purposes of apportionment. The three-fifths compromise was designed to prevent Southern states from magnifying their political power.

Pirates, however, are in the Constitution. Piracy has long been recognized as an international crime. The Define and Punish Clause (Article I, Section 8 Clause 10) empowers Congress to “define and punish” piracy and other felonies “committed on the high seas.” America’s first military action was in 1801 against the Barbary pirates, whose attacks on merchant ships threatened American commerce.

What’s the difference between a pirate and a privateer? The Marque and Reprisal Clause. Privateers bearing a letter of Marque and Reprisal from Congress (not the states) are authorized to attack foreign ships during wartime.

2. The Federal Government isn’t the only one that’s limited.

Conservatives constantly talk about the limits on federal power. In this period of wild federal overreach, many states are eager to flex some constitutional muscle. Great!

But, let’s get one thing straight: the Constitution limits states too. Under the Articles of Confederation, robust commerce, a stable economy, and a coherent foreign policy were impossible. Therefore the Constitution prohibits states from creating their own currencies, taxing exports from other states, and interfering with contracts. It also forbids states from turning a pirate into a privateer, forming treaties or agreements with foreign Power, keeping troops or war ships during peacetime, or engaging in War (unless actually invaded). Don’t even get us started on the myth of nullification.

3. The Constitution encourages swearing.

Before entering office, the President swears to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But the President is not the only member of the federal government to take an oath. Article VI requires members of the legislative, executive, or judicial branches in both the state and federal government to swear to support the Constitution. The first law passed by the first Congress was “an Act to regulate the Time and Matter of administering certain Oaths.”

Here’s why this is significant: upholding the Constitution is the task of every officer in government, including the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court.

4. ”Rights” appear once in the Constitution.

Most constitutions around the world are lists of rights: the right to work, to health care, to ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development. In these constitutions, rights come from government, not from nature.

But in the United States Constitution, the government does not create rights; it secures them. Therefore the word “right” is barely mentioned in the Constitution. It appears once in the unamended document: The Patents Clause in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, stating “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” The Bill of Rights further secures rights by limiting the powers of the federal government.

5. States must be Republics.

The Guarantee Clause is perhaps the best—but least-known—clause of the Constitution. The clause guarantees states a republican form of government and protection from foreign invasion. The Framers agreed on three criteria for republican government: popular rule, no monarch, and rule of law. If citizens think their state government is no longer republican, they should seek relief in Congress.

There are a few odd clauses and interesting phrases in the Constitution. But there are more serious constitutional issues to discuss as well: the meaning of the First Amendment, the limits of the Commerce Clause, the extent of Congress’s War Powers. To have these debates and conversations, we need to read, study, and understand the Constitution’s meaning. And that’s what ConstitutionOnline.com is all about.


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