Dorothy Tapper Goldman’s decision to share her rich, wide-ranging history of constitution-making in our nation and states is cause for celebration. Constitutions in the United States, unlike many the world has seen, are not just aspirational documents. They embody laws to be applied on the ground, here and now. Constitutions are our highest laws against which ordinary legislation and executive actions are measured.
As James F. Hrdlicka’s introduction to Colonists, Citizens, Constitutions informs, the founding constitutions were imperfect. But the overriding aim, realized over time, was to form ever more perfect unions, in service of “We the People.”
The constitutions on display in this exhibition rest on twin pillars. First, they establish governments of limited powers. Those governments can exercise only the authority expressly conferred by the highest law. And second, constitutions set out fundamental rights to be enjoyed by all who dwell in the United States of America. Those rights are our nation’s hallmark. They are set forth in bills of rights and, later, in other constitutional amendments. By limiting government, specifying rights, and empowering the people, the founders of our nation and states proclaimed that the heart of America would be its citizens, not its rulers.
To form more perfect unions is the enduring aim. At the start, it is true, our fundamental instruments of government very much needed perfection. Original constitutions permitted slavery and severely limited who counted among “We the People.” When the nation was new, only white, property-owning men had the right to vote, the most basic right of citizenship. But over the course of our history, people left out at the start—people held in human bondage, Native Americans, and women (half of the adult population) came to be embraced as full citizens. A French observer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than . . . other nation[s], but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Through amendments to our constitutions, and court decisions applying those amendments, we abolished slavery, prohibited racial discrimination, and recognized men and women as people equal in dignity and citizenship stature.
Though we have made huge progress, the work of perfection is scarcely done. Many stains remain. In this rich land, nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty, nearly half of our citizens do not vote, and we still struggle to achieve greater understanding and appreciation of each other across racial, religious, and socio-economic lines. Yet we strive to become a more perfect union.
We sing of America, “sweet land of liberty.” Newcomers to our shores have come here, from the earliest days of our nation to today, seeking liberty—freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be you and me. Guided by our fundamental instruments of government and knowledge of their history, we the people can play a vital part in perfecting our unions, first and foremost by voting in elections, but also by participating in the administration of justice by serving on juries and by engaging with our representatives and fellow citizens in civic discourse.
The education you will experience in this exhibition will make you proud of our heritage, and ever more ready to contribute to keeping the United States a blessed land where people can realize their full potential as humans while contributing to the common good.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States