A Living Document


The Ability To Change

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention traveled to Philadelphia on horseback or by carriage. They could not have imagined today’s world of cars and airplanes. Delegates communicated with their families through letters that took weeks to arrive. Today, telephones, computers, and fax machines send messages in seconds. Despite such mind-boggling changes, the Constitution has continued to serve brilliantly as the framework of our government.

One reason is that a way of amending, or making a change, is part of the Constitution. Article V describes how to amend the Constitution. Either Congress or state conventions can propose an amendment – a change or addition to the Constitution. It then goes to the states to be approved.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution were the Bill of Rights. James Madison wrote most of the Bill of Rights. He must have suspected that the future would bring more amendments. “In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” he said, “we should not lose sight of the changes which the ages will produce.” However, in more than 200 years the Constitution has been amended only 27 times!

The Constitution can be changed in other ways as well. One way is through the Supreme Court. The language of the Constitution is often general. It is the Court’s job to interpret that language. In one clause, for example, Congress is given the power to make any laws “necessary and proper” for carrying out its duties.

The Supreme Court has applied this “necessary and proper” clause to many different situations over the years. For example, the Constitution says nothing about the airline business. Yet it does give Congress the power to control interstate trade. The Court thus decided that Congress can also regulate (control) airlines. Because this clause of the Constitution has allowed the powers of Congress to expand, or stretch, it is often called the “elastic clause!”

Change Over Time

Custom also affect the Constitution. Certain practices have been followed so long they have become an unwritten part of government. For example, all Presidents appoint a Cabinet – a formal group of advisers. The Constitution makes no mention of such a group. It simply says that the President may set up departments to help run the government. It is by custom, not by law, that the Cabinet has become an official part of the executive branch.
The Constitution continues to change through new customs, court decisions, and amendments. Yet the seven principles on which it was based remain. The United States is ruled not by the whim of its leaders, but by a set of laws. The laws unite a diverse and changing population. One historian has described the Constitution as “the symbol that unifies...people of different origins, races, and religions into a single nation.”

The great power of the Constitution does not rest only in what is actually says. Of equal importance is the ability of the Constitution to expand and grow by amendment, interpretation, and custom. The living Constitution provides strength for the present as well as promise for the future!

This reading adapted from America’s Past and Promise (Houghton Mifflin, 1995) and American History (Follett, 1979)