Starting this week, visitors to the Minnesota History Center can see one of eight remaining first official printings of the U.S. Constitution, as well as an early draft of the Bill of Rights. The documents are preserved under glass, but one glance at today’s news narrative reveals that they’re as alive as ever.
Rick Santorum has challenged the conventional constructs of politics, church and state. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. And the Trayvon Martin case is just the latest flashpoint in the never-ending debate over the right to bear arms.
“The recent Supreme Court hearings about the healthcare reform law are based on Article One of the Constitution, and the Trayvon Martin case — you look at this draft and it specifically identifies the right to bear arms as a collective right and not an individual right, which is something that went away in the final version that was ratified,” said Danielle Dart, public program specialist at the History Center. “So you can see that original set of debates right on paper in front of you as you look at these documents.”
They aren’t the only documents at the exhibit that reveal how long-lasting our polarized politics have been around. Two copies of Minnesota’s Constitution are displayed side-by-side. Except for about 300 differences in punctuation, verbiage and grammar, they’re identical. But just as now, in 1857 there was a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats, so they each signed separate copies.
Fortunately, the federal version reflects more cohesion.
“They obviously understood that the words mattered. And the detail that they went into, and the language, and the choice of words, and how they structured the sentences, it’s clear that they were trying to find a way that was pragmatic,” Dart said, adding that “There was a lot of compromise.”
Evidence of collaboration is hard to come by today, although most of us are still striving to live up to those carefully crafted words under glass.
“I find it thrilling that we care so passionately about how this vision of 'we the people in this more perfect union’ turns out. We’ve never stopped arguing about it, and that means we’re not complacent,” Dart said. “We don’t agree on what that looks like all the time, but we care enough to talk about it — and sometimes to yell about it— because it matters to us.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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