Commentary by Lt. Col. Amy Robinson
50th Operations Group deputy commander
One thing all of us in the military have in common is that we have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, and to bear true faith and allegiance to it. The Constitution is frequently referenced in news reporting, kicked around by pundits, and addressed in endless blogs, but how many of us know as much as we should about this important document? As Airmen and as citizens, we ought to be at least a little familiar with the text, history and influences of this document that, more than any other, defines our way of governing, and some of our most revered, nationally shared values.
I find the history of the Constitution fascinating. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and other founders were well read, and historians tell us they drew upon their knowledge of ancient Greek Democracy and the Roman Republic as alternatives to the types of governments involved in Europe’s conflict-ridden history. They attempted to use rational thought to form a representational government, rejecting the notion of a divinely appointed king.
Our nation’s first attempt at a codified set of rules for governing the country was known as The Articles of Confederation, but under this system the states were so independent of each other, the U.S. could scarcely be considered a single nation. This weak central government did not work well, in May 1787, a new Constitutional Convention was convened to attempt to strengthen the central government. They were successful, and by June 1788, the states had ratified the Constitution.
The purpose of the Constitution is to define the way we govern ourselves. The federal government is divided into three branches, defined in the first three articles of the Constitution, with the last four articles addressing interstate relationships and the Constitution itself.
Article I established a legislative branch or Congress, to pass federal laws and proposed amendments to the Constitution, control the nation’s finances, and declare war. The legislative branch consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate.
Article II established an executive branch to enforce federal laws, lead the military, and work with other branches on matters of state. The executive branch consists of the President and his cabinet of appointees.
Article III established a judicial branch to provide judgment in all federal trials, to include matters of constitutionality (while the legislative branch makes constitutional law, the judicial branch determines its proper interpretation for application). The judicial branch consists of a Supreme Court of nine justices appointed for life by the President, and subordinate courts established, as necessary, by Congress.
Article IV addressed legal interactions and relationships among the states.
Article V required a two thirds majority among both House and Senate, and a three fourths majority among state legislatures, for any constitutional amendment.
Article VI established the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land” (giving it precedence over any federal official), and prohibited any requirement for any government official to meet any religious standard.
Article VII set the standard that ratification of the Constitution by nine of the thirteen states would be sufficient for its acceptance by all states.
As it was first written, the Constitution said very little about the individual rights of citizens, but Thomas Jefferson, in a December 1787 letter to James Madison (the Constitution’s chief architect), persuaded Madison that such codified rights were needed to protect “against every government on earth.” Thomas Jefferson proposed the first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment ensures that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The Second Amendment ensures “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” (at the beginning of the American Revolution, the British troops tried to confiscate colonists’ guns).
The Third Amendment ensures that “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law” (this was another grievance that colonists held against British troops).
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires probable cause for search warrants.
The Fifth Amendment is well known for protecting citizens from having to testify against themselves, but it actually includes much more. It requires a grand jury indictment for capital crimes, except in cases in “the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger.” It prohibits double-jeopardy for the same offense and requires due process for punishing anyone. And finally it prevents private property from being taken for public use without just compensation.
The Sixth Amendment protects those accused of a crime by providing the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, and the right to be informed of charges, to confront witnesses, to be allowed to present witnesses in his favor, and to have legal defense counsel.
The Seventh Amendment ensured that “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment acknowledges that there are other rights not specifically spelled out in the Constitution.
The Tenth Amendment is often referred to as “the reserved powers of the states” because it says that authorities not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people.
There have been only 17 amendments since the original 10, which shows that the requirements laid out in Article V for changing the Constitution are not easy to meet! The complete text of the constitution and its amendments can be found at http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html and I encourage everyone to take the time to remain familiar with this document that we are in the profession of defending.