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The Constitution as Reflecting American Values

15 January, 2016 - 09:29

In the US, the one document to which all public officials and military personnel pledge their unswerving allegiance is the Constitution. If you serve, you are asked to “support and defend” the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The oath usually includes a statement that you swear that this oath is taken freely, honestly, and without “any purpose of evasion.” This loyalty oath may be related to a time—fifty years ago—when “un-American” activities were under investigation in Congress and the press; the fear of communism (as antithetical to American values and principles) was paramount. As you look at the Constitution and how it affects the legal environment of business, please consider what basic values it may impart to us and what makes it uniquely American and worth defending “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

In Article I, the Constitution places the legislature first and prescribes the ways in which representatives are elected to public office. Article I balances influence in the federal legislature between large states and small states by creating a Senate in which the smaller states (by population) as well as the larger states have two votes. In Article II, the Constitution sets forth the powers and responsibilities of the branch—the presidency—and makes it clear that the president should be the commander in chief of the armed forces. Article II also gives states rather than individuals (through the Electoral College) a clear role in the election process. Article III creates the federal judiciary, and the Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, makes clear that individual rights must be preserved against activities of the federal government. In general, the idea of rights is particularly strong.

The Constitution itself speaks of rights in fairly general terms, and the judicial interpretation of various rights has been in flux. The “right” of a person to own another person was notably affirmed by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scottdecision in 1857. 1 The “right” of a child to freely contract for long, tedious hours of work was upheld by the court in Hammer v. Dagenhartin 1918. Both decisions were later repudiated, just as the decision that a woman has a “right” to an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy could later be repudiated if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court. 2