Back in 2011, former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore appeared on a far-right radio program. The program’s host said he wanted an amendment to the Constitution that repealed all the current amendments from the 11th through the 27th. Moore’s response was revealing: “That would eliminate many problems. You know, people don’t understand how some of these amendments have completely tried to wreck the form of government that our forefathers intended.”
We should not be surprised that Moore would pine for a bygone constitutional era. This is the man, let’s not forget, who nostalgically cited the antebellum years as the last time America was great (a “time when families were united, even though we had slavery,” he said). In the wake of Moore’s failure to win his race for the Senate, however, it’s worth pointing out that he clearly understands the progressive arc of our Constitution’s text and history and fears its strength. After all, the very amendments he would see repealed are at the root of his electoral downfall.
Moore’s defeat is a reminder to everyone in America and around the world that our Constitution — an imperfect work-in-progress since the very beginning — is an incredibly resilient document. Our founders designed a Constitution that enshrines enduring values, even as it can be amended to adapt to changes in our dynamic society.
Yale Law School Professor Akhil Amar once said that the three amendments ratified within five years of the North’s victory in the Civil War “can only be described as a constitutional revolution.” Given the cause of that war— a bloody rebellion by the southern states to keep four million black people in slavery — such a revolution in our founding charter was essential. America ratified amendments, Amar wrote, that “ended slavery [except as punishment for a crime], made every person born under the flag an equal citizen, guaranteed a host of civil rights to all Americans and extended equal political [i.e., voting] rights to black men.”
In subsequent decades, the right to vote for more people was protected through additional amendments to our Constitution addressing women, people over age 18 and those blocked from the ballot box because of inability to pay poll taxes. We also extended the right to vote for a certain federal office — that of United States senator — placing that power in the hands of the people instead of state legislators so corrupt that, in some places, they were actually selling Senate seats to the highest corporate bidder.
Critically, these amendments took power away from states, which could not be trusted to protect the rights of all the people — especially, but not limited to, African Americans — and shifted that power to the federal government or the people directly. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment lists a series of actions that “No State shall” take, while succeeding generations ratified, over and over again, constitutional commands that explicitly state, “Congress shall have power to enforce” these amendments by “appropriate legislation.”
“[S]ome of these amendments have completely tried to wreck the form of government that our forefathers intended,” Moore said. If by “wreck,” he meant shifting power away from state institutions and state government officials to other institutions and officials more willing and able to protect our rights, fixing flaws in the founders’ original design, then Roy Moore was right. That was the entire point.
But those amendments — and the people who drafted and ratified them — didn’t merely “try” to do this. Hundreds of thousands of men and women from the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the Progressive era, up through the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, toiled, bled and died to sweep aside many of the vicious inequities allowed by our original Constitution. There is still much more work to do, but their sacrifice made our nation’s founding charter more perfect.
Last week’s nail-biting election in Alabama proved this. To a degree almost no one predicted, Roy Moore’s nostalgia for America’s pre-Civil War constitutional past was repudiated. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans and women in Alabama flooded the polls, exercised their right to vote for U.S. senator and elected Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones. They did this in spite of a defective and dangerous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, that flashed a green light to officials like those in Alabama who passed malicious laws to suppress their votes. It is no coincidence that the very people who Moore’s vision would exclude, once again, from participating in our democracy were the same people who sent him packing.
Our amended Constitution made this possible. Everyday Americans had the power to triumph last week because our Constitution is stronger than Roy Moore. It’s even stronger than the Supreme Court. But it isn’t certain to remain so. Only with the sustained, active commitment to the future of our country that we saw from the majority of voters in Alabama can We the People keep it that way.