An evaluation of the Constitution- Is it a successful experiment?

The Constitution is intricately tied to the establishment of the United States as a new nation. Disputing the Constitution means challenging the nation and American identity. Americans strongly uphold the values in the Constitution, so acting against it is considered un-American. Longevity. The Constitution is the oldest written constitution globally. America has endured various challenges under the same document, such as civil war, rapid industrialization, economic depression, world wars, the Cold War, massive immigration waves, and internal struggles over civil rights and Vietnam. The Constitution has remained a constant in a changing nation and world. This continuity has given the document both symbolic and substantive significance that may be hard to grasp for those outside America. Each passing year reinforces the wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers, and the exceptional nature of the Constitution - formally inflexible yet able to adapt to new political, social, and economic situations - becomes even more ingrained in the American national psyche.


Adaptation and changelessness. 


The Constitution's brilliance lies in its ability to balance change with continuity. While it presents timeless truths about humanity, politics, and governance, its flexible provisions have allowed for evolving interpretations over time. The limited formal amendments contribute to the stability of the government while permitting shifts in how the Constitution is applied. These elements have established the Constitution as a revered symbol of American pride. It was hailed by British Prime Minister William Gladstone as a remarkable creation, not just for its innovative origins in 1787, but for the enduring design it embodies. Unlike other nations with longstanding traditions, America's diverse population and lack of unifying symbols have elevated the Constitution as a unique source of national unity. The Constitution's unwavering presence for over two centuries has solidified its position as a core symbol of American identity. Unlike the evolving flag, the Constitution's consistency has reinforced its role as a stable and unchanging pillar of American values.

There are two main reasons why so few amendments to the document have been passed. One reason is the challenging amendment process established when the Constitution was ratified. An amendment can be proposed by both houses of Congress (with a two-thirds majority vote) or by a constitutional convention called by Congress at the request of three-quarters of the states. After being proposed, the amendment must then be ratified by either three-fourths of state legislatures or by constitutional conventions in three-fourths of the states. This rigidity makes it difficult to garner enough popular support to pass an amendment, as both stages of the process are highly demanding. In 1972, Congress proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to solidify equality for American women. While the amendment passed through Congress reflecting some success of women's movements for equal rights in the 1960s and the expansion of the civil rights agenda, it did not receive enough state endorsements for successful ratification. Despite Congress extending the ratification deadline to 1982, ERA supporters did not secure the necessary approval from 38 states. As broad public support is crucial for the amendment process, formal changes to the document are infrequent. Another reason for the scarcity of amendments is that although the Constitution is rigid, it can evolve through interpretations by federal and state courts. Describing this as an informal amendment mechanism might be slightly misleading. Judicial interpretations of the Constitution's clauses and the reconciliation of laws with specific constitutional provisions are vital, with law playing a central role. Decisions made by an independent judiciary, which Chief Justice William Rehnquist referred to as 'the crown jewel of the Constitution,' can alter the practical implications of the document without changing the actual words. Consequently, court rulings have a significant impact on everyday American life.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the Constitution, aims to protect individual citizens from the government. Originally, these protections were directed at the federal government, not the state governments. However, through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has extended some of these rights to apply to the states. For instance, in the case of Griswold v Connecticut, the Court recognized the right to privacy, even though it is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Despite the limited number of formal amendments, the Constitution has significantly evolved since 1787 through judicial interpretations. The Constitution's ambiguity allows for flexibility in adapting to changing circumstances, which defenders view as a strength. Conversely, critics argue that judges should adhere strictly to the law and not impose personal beliefs. They believe that altering the Constitution's meaning without formal amendments grants unelected judges excessive power. This practice, known as judicial legislating or 'raw judicial power,' is contentious because overturning a Supreme Court ruling typically requires a constitutional amendment. Only five amendments have been ratified to reverse Supreme Court decisions, such as the Sixteenth Amendment overturning a ruling on federal income tax.

Short, ambiguous and imprecise, the Con­stitution's apparent weaknesses turn out to be its enduring strengths, the 'efficient secret' of its lasting claim to universal American respect. The oldest. in the world, with every passing year the genius of its designers seems only more potent to those Americans con­templating the Founding Fathers in 1787 constructing a new and novel constitutional order that still operates in the twenty-first century. And while no other nation has sought to emulate the Constitution in its entirety (in particular, remarkably few have sought to emulate the fragmented system of government set up by the Constitution), the document has proven to be a model from which selective features (the Bill of Rights, especially) have emerged over time as some of America's more successful and important exports.




Since the document is so ambiguous, how  should judges go about interpreting it in concrete cases? What, if any, principles should guide their deliberations? These questions are far from abstract or arcane since the answers condition the real world results for millions of Americans. From whether Americans have a right to own firearms, through whether government can prohibit a woman from pro­curing an abortion, to whether states can allow physician-assisted suicide, all hinge on how one interprets the document. What the document means is literally a matter of life and death for millions of Americans today.

Two basic questions inform the interpreta­tion problem:

·      Should courts defer to the will of elected  representatives or assert their independence in striking laws down as unconstitutional?

·      Should judges read the clauses of the Constitution narrowly or broadly?

The more courts are willing to strike laws down and read the Constitution's provisions broadly '(whether for liberal or conservative ends), the more 'activist' courts appear. This can be problematic since, as unelected bodies, to deny elected legislators the fruits of their victories is controversial in a democracy. But the less willing courts are to strike laws down and the ,more they read constitutional clauses narrowly, the more the decisions of elected bodies will dominate. If this occurs, the rights of individuals and minorities may be abused and 'civilized' values go unprotected.

Although distinctions within the ap­proaches to matters of constitutional inter­pretation are many and complex, two broad schools of thought have developed on this matter:

Interpretivism. Adherents to interpretivism hold that the only manner in which jus­tices can decide cases of constitutionality is with reference to the Constitution itself. If the words of the document cannot rea­sonably be read to apply to a case, judges must not intervene. The stricter version of this is sometimes termed 'historical originalism' or 'textualism' - these mean, respectively, that either the original understanding at the time clauses were written or the 'plain meaning' of the text must guide interpretation.

·      Non-interpretivism. Upholders of non­interpretivism believe in a 'living Consti­tution'. They see interpretivists as too narrow. Political values inform the Con­stitution - civil rights, democracy, liberty, minority rights - and need to be defended and promoted. Too zealous an adherence to the Constitution's original or plain meaning would yield policy results that are repugnant to civilized values in today's world. On this view, the appro­priate question is not so much how to interpret the Constitution but whether to do so at all through originalist methods.

The issues raised by constitutional inter­pretation are complex and important ones. This is not only a matter of the individual laws or policies that they affect but also the entire design of constitutional government. The Bill of Rights was intended to protect the individual against the government and minorities against the majority - including, the rights of criminal defend­ants.(Miranda v Arizona) If its meaning becomes dependent on what judges believe either they or a majority of the public desire, then this will reverse the entire purpose of the document: what should be a restraint on majoritarianism instead becomes an expression thereof. The debate over how to interpret the Constitution's pro­visions, then, goes to the very heart of the design of American democracy and the char­acter of contemporary life. 


If there is disagreement among Americans on how to interpret the Constitution, one point of agreement is that its provisions are vague and ambiguous. This ambiguity has allowed the Constitution to evolve through interpretation, but there are differing opinions on whether it has helped or hindered necessary social change. American history, marked by instances of illiberalism like slavery, segregation, anti-Semitism, Japanese internment during World War II, repression, and McCarthyism, underscores the importance of social change. Despite their role as protectors of minorities against majority tyranny, Supreme Court decisions have both upheld and later struck down practices like slavery, segregation, and Japanese internment based on the US Constitution.

Three main lines of criticism have been particularly prominent in both academic and popular writings on the Constitution.

The Constitution is elitist

The Founding Fathers had differing political views, but shared a common identity as white, wealthy men, many of whom owned slaves. The Constitution they created safeguarded their economic interests through the established governmental structures while excluding women and Black individuals from American citizenship. Slaves, though not explicitly named, were specifically counted as 'three-fifths of all other Persons' in Article I, Section 2 to determine state representation in Congress and taxation levels. Women were only granted the right to vote with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice, criticized the Constitution as 'defective from the start' on its bicentennial. Although the 1787 document did not establish a fully democratic system and the presence of slavery and segregation tarnished American history, evaluating the Constitution in a modern context poses challenges. Constitutions written in the eighteenth century were unlikely to align completely with today's democratic standards. Nevertheless, the American Constitution was relatively progressive for its time. The ability of women and Black individuals to leverage its provisions for political and civil rights underscores its practical value. The inclusive language of 'persons' instead of 'men' suggested a broader intent of the Constitution. Despite full democracy only being achieved in 1965 with equality for Blacks, African Americans utilized the Constitution to drive social change. Most countries undergo internal conflicts, regime changes, and revisions of constitutions. America's political stability is owed to the Constitution, which has facilitated its democratization while maintaining core values and government structures.

The Constitution is outmoded and inappropriate

Is the Constitution outdated and unsuitable for modern America? Many question why current generations are bound to the perspectives of their ancestors, who wrote the Constitution with quills. For instance, the ongoing gun control debate often centers around the interpretation of the Second Amendment. Some argue that relying on a provision written in 1791 for contemporary firearm laws is unreasonable. Similarly, the discussion on abortion often questions the Supreme Court's decision in 1973 to establish a constitutional right to abortion based on privacy rights. Critics argue that the term 'right to privacy' is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Debating crucial social issues like gun control, abortion, capital punishment, and LGBTQ rights based on an 18th-century document of 7,000 words may seem illogical to many Americans. However, the issue lies not with the Constitution but with societal beliefs. Different views exist regarding private gun ownership and other topics, with Americans being divided on these issues. States have the autonomy to ban the death penalty if desired, as demonstrated by 12 states. The Constitution does not mandate capital punishment or gun use but permits them based on the public's preferences. Therefore, the Constitution has not trapped Americans in an outdated era but has adapted to changing public opinions, resulting in policies that may not be favored by all but enjoy significant support in the United States.

The Constitution is inefficient

Critics like Lazare (1996) and Putley (1997) view the Constitution as an obstacle to social progress in America. They argue that the intricate system of checks and balances leads to governmental inefficiency and hinders adaptation to a changing society. Unlike other modern democracies, the American model is criticized for causing 'gridlock' due to numerous veto points. This complexity makes it very challenging to enact policy changes, particularly at the federal level. Some critics believe this results in the government's inability to address contemporary issues like environmental degradation, economic downturns, and healthcare provision effectively. They also contend that the laws passed are often compromises that only partially satisfy various groups, failing to provide comprehensive solutions to policy challenges.


Many Americans believe the Constitution hinders or slows down significant social, economic, and political changes, making it a conservative force. This is due to the decentralized government it set up, making it easier to halt rather than initiate innovative policies. Certain constitutional clauses also imply formidable obstacles to change, such as in the case of gun control. The courts have the power to invalidate laws as unconstitutional, so even if Congress and the president enact a progressive bill, its implementation is not guaranteed. Achieving compromise in American politics is challenging and typically involves a lengthy process. For instance, black Americans had to endure years of inequality before gaining equal political and civil rights, while women still face obstacles to realizing their constitutionally guaranteed equality. However, a constitution that fails to provide political stability would be ineffective. Constitutions are meant to maintain a level of continuity in political systems while allowing for change within established frameworks. In many cases, the lack of change in America is more due to the preferences of the people rather than flaws in the constitutional design.

Most Americans generally support stricter federal gun control measures, but they often do not mobilize in large numbers or vote based on this issue to overcome the strong minority opposition to tougher laws. Blaming weak firearms regulations on the Second Amendment is considered misplaced in this context. Similarly, while the constitutional framework allows Americans to elect tax-cutting presidents and lawmakers who want to increase social spending, it does not obligate them to do so. Faulting the trillion-dollar budget deficits of the 1980s on the Constitution rather than on the conflicting preferences of the electorate, as reflected in elections that result in divided party control of the federal government, appears misguided. The Constitution does not inhibit change; in fact, it facilitates various agents of change, such as the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court at the federal level, as well as the different branches of the 50 states (governors, state legislatures, state courts, mayors, city councils), and provisions for statewide referendums on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the legalization of cannabis. However, the Constitution primarily makes change contingent on broad public support. Without such support, change is unlikely to happen. Criticizing a constitutional order on these grounds overlooks the importance of majority backing. In the UK, measures passed by a party with a parliamentary majority obtained with a minority of the popular vote, as was often the case with the Thatcher and Blair administrations, face more challenges in the American system. This difference, as argued by Morris Fiorina (1992), may limit society's gains from government action but also prevents potential losses. This does not imply that Americans do not sometimes advocate for changes that they later regret, as seen with Prohibition. Since the nineteenth century, a diverse coalition of interests has been involved in pushing for various reforms.

Religious groups, feminists, and labor unions pushed for a formal constitutional amendment to ban alcohol sales or distribution. This effort succeeded in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. However, the outcome was problematic, leading to increased corruption, crime, and inflated prices in the black market for alcohol. The Twenty-First Amendment in 1933 reversed this decision, ending America's "dry" era after 24 years of turmoil. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution emphasize that the government's authority relies on the people's consent. The government's actions are influenced by public support or opposition. Blaming America's issues on the Constitution overlooks the democratic and limited government system it established. While America has not always fully upheld its constitutional guarantees, their existence is significant. For instance, in October 1999, during Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the UK, British authorities used an outdated law to prevent protests in London. In contrast, in the US, even controversial groups like neo-Nazis have been allowed to exercise their rights under the First Amendment. Despite America's flaws, the Constitution has been instrumental in expanding democratic rights, even among groups like African Americans who have vigorously defended it.

The Constitution places a requirement on those aiming for political change in the United States to not only gain majority support but also adhere to constitutional principles. The importance of ensuring that proposed changes or laws are in line with the Constitution takes precedence. This process can be time-consuming, frustrating, and challenging. However, it also ensures that all individuals, including citizens, decision-makers, and the government, are held accountable to a higher legal standard. This accountability framework creates a stable environment for political conflicts and establishes established procedures for resolving disputes. As a result, the risks of unchecked authority, a common issue in many parts of the world, are significantly reduced, if not completely eradicated.


Persistent adherence to an eighteenth-century document crafted by gentlemen may seem absurd for today's society, but the Constitution has stood the test of time by adapting to significant changes while maintaining its core structure. Despite criticism from abroad, many fail to acknowledge the Constitution's accomplishments. Age alone does not diminish the relevance of its principles or the importance of its values. American identity is deeply rooted in political values, with the Constitution serving as the cornerstone. It embodies America more than any individual or government body. Its steadfastness in upholding democracy makes it sacred, ensuring the rule of law over personal whims and promoting fairness. Every citizen is bound by its rules, emphasizing equality under the law. This shared foundation allows Americans to engage in debates while upholding their common identity. Even James Madison, a key architect of the Constitution, recognized its imperfections. However, despite its flaws, the US Constitution has provided a solid foundation for both continuity and change in America.