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Opinion

Why do Americans get the Constitution so wrong?

There’s no excuse for misquoting and misunderstanding the US Constitution. But public figures ranging from Nancy Pelosi to Rush Limbaugh do it all the time.

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Sen. Roland Burris (D) of Illinois, Obama’s appointed replacement to the U.S. Senate, said regarding the issue: “What does the Constitution say? To provide for the health, welfare and the defense of the country.”

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The word “health” appears nowhere in the Constitution.

Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said the Constitution’s “good and welfare clause” gives Congress the authority to require individuals to buy health insurance as mandated in the health care bill.

There is no “good and welfare clause” in the U.S. Constitution.

Maybe he means the general welfare clause (Article 1, Section 8), which states: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States...”

Both parties guilty

Before we lay blame, it should be noted that invalidating the Constitution is a bipartisan pastime.

During his speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, talk show host Rush Limbaugh said, “We believe that the preamble to the Constitution contains an inarguable truth that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.”

Again, that’s the Declaration of Independence.

On a recent episode of the Sunday talk show “The McLaughlin Group,” conservative pundit Patrick J. Buchanan, quoting the preamble, said, “for ourselves and our progeny.”

It’s “posterity.”

No good reason

There is no good reason for the Constitution to be misquoted. Its genius is its simplicity. In slightly more than 7,500 words, it lays out the framework for the greatest way of life and most just legal system in the world. And its 39 courageous signers, in their wisdom, handed the nation’s ordinary citizens tremendous power. But never absolute power.

The Constitution is smart enough to not trust the president, either Democrat or Republican. It eschews dictatorship, laying out a tripartite government. It safeguards justice. The Constitution pioneered the do-over, allowing for amendments dictated by the will of us, the people.

If not for the First Amendment, you might not be reading this essay. And every champagne toast should begin with a nod to the 21st Amendment. I’m grateful for the 19th Amendment, which came too late but arrived just in time, giving me the right to vote.

So, today, on the 223rd anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the preamble is printed here, for those young enough to need a refresher:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Lion Calandra is a Jennings Fellow with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

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