Fact, Opinion, and a “Gravely Ill” Constitution

Oct. 17, 2016
How and why the U.S. constitution will survive the current political turmoil.

The Constitution of the United States of America is “gravely ill.”

So asserts Garrett Epps, who teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore in Maryland.

Mr. Epps, who also is a contributing editor to the Atlantic magazine, further asserts in an article appearing in September that a victory by Donald Trump this year’s U.S. presidential election would render the Constitution “toothless.”

With all due respect, Mr. Epps’ assessments are opinions, not facts. Indeed, any extra-Constitutional activities by a President Trump—or by any other president of the United States—would likely find the Constitution painfully biting the chief executive through the courts and Congress.

No, Mr. Epps, the tripartite government envisioned by the Constitution is not about to be obliterated against the wall of history. Nor is the United States living in a “post-Constitutional era” (your phrase). Nor have the people of the United States turned away from a serious search for values in the Constitution. The vast majority of the nation does not regard the Constitution as an annoying set of rules.

The U.S. Constitution in reality is remarkably healthy more than 200 years after its composition, ratification and adoption.

The executive, legislative, and judicial branches of America’s federal government remain very much alive—albeit not necessarily moving in the directions and at the pace each and every citizen would wish.

Although with kudos to you Mr. Epps for creative phrasing, the fact is that “constitutional rot” has not spread from a feckless Congress to a desperate executive and constitutional rot is not enfeebling the judicial branch.

Remarkably, the Constitution of the United States, a document of values and responsibilities, of principles and procedures, and of checks and balances, has been amended only twenty-seven times since 1789. The Constitution has been amended only seventeen times if you accept the argument that ratification of the original document occurred only upon assurance that a bill of rights, the first ten amendments, would swiftly be incorporated.

The fact is that the Constitution of the United States remains unique among governing documents, as unique among the nations of the world as the federal form of government it created. It is well to remember that as another presidential election is underway in the United States and the candidates vie for votes.

Above all, it is well to separate constitutional fact from opinion. 

This is another in a series of occasional essays by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer who for four decades covered international economics, public policy, and management principles for IndustryWeek.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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