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The Word That’s Not in the Constitution

by Stuart Shepard

You won’t find this word in our nation’s founding document. You can search every Article, every Section. It’s a word that, given the historical context and how common it was in the late 1700s, you would expect to be in there.

But it’s not.

I was sitting in a packed classroom with the men and women attending our second Statesmen Academy in July. Matthew Spalding, a professor at Hillsdale College, was highlighting the importance of governing with “prudence” and “principle.”

He asked the class what that missing word in the Constitution might be.

There were a couple timidly offered suggestions. Both were incorrect. I wondered aloud, “God?” He said, “No, it’s in there. It’s signed ‘In the Year of Our Lord.’ Anybody else?”

Then someone a couple rows in front of me guessed it:

“Slave.”

I won’t pretend to be as brilliant as Dr. Spalding, but here’s the gist of what he said: The Founders meticulously avoided enshrining forever in our cornerstone document the idea of one human being owning another. Looking down the long hallway of history, they left open a door for the end of the slave trade in this very new United States of America.

And, sure enough, about 75 years later, it was done.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Congress and the states followed up with the 13th Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

That path was made easier, thanks to the foresight of the Founders. Many of them knew slavery was wrong, but they also knew they couldn’t change it in their lifetimes. So, they left open a door for when the time was right, when the nation was ready.

This week, the question has been raised whether to topple statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. That raises questions about the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. Do we dynamite Mt. Rushmore? Will we need to rename Washington, D.C.? And don’t forget all those U.S. cities and counties named “Jefferson.”

Here’s the larger question: Do we erase every memorial to the Founders because they failed to live up to our values? Or do we honor them as imperfect humans, living in a specific time in history, who brilliantly wove biblical truth into the framework of a nation? Including the timeless concept that human rights are bestowed by our Creator – equally – to every person.

And who also thoughtfully chose to leave one particular word out.


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