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Public Statements

The House's Reading of the Constitution

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, D.C.

* Mr. HOLT. Mr. Speaker, when we read the Constitution in this body on January 6, 2011, we missed a good opportunity. I joined in the reading. I was certainly not going to allow one political party to claim the Constitution for its own, as it has sometimes tried to claim the U.S. flag. However, by reading an altered version of the Constitution and by doing so without warrant we lost a great educational moment.

* I revere the U.S. Constitution and carry a copy of the Constitution with me every day. I often ask students what they think is the greatest invention of humans. Because they know that I am a scientist, they usually say something technical like the laser or a microchip in answer to my question. I reply that the greatest invention is the U.S. Constitution. It is truly ingenious: Because of this document, our brilliant, resilient, self-correcting system of government, dreamed up in Philadelphia so many years ago, still functions well today. The system inspires and motivates people around the world.

* Instead of reading the full Constitution, members of the House took turns reading an altered text based on the amendments. I was further troubled to learn that because of human error we skipped two pages during our reading.

* The altered text omitted the original language of Article I, Section 2 that counted each black individual as only three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportionment of Representatives, omitting it and reading only the text of the 14th Amendment that apportioned Representatives according to the total number of all male citizens. Yet, Article I, Section 3 that proscribes that the two Senators from each state be chosen by the state legislature, a passage of the Constitution subsequently amended by the 17th Amendment, was read in its original format.

* The decision to not read the full text ignores the fundamental strength of the U.S. Constitution--its implicit recognition that the United States of America is an imperfect, ever evolving, self-correcting union. The Constitution is not a perfect document, and the Founders did not have all the answers. African American were counted as three-fifths of a person. Women were disenfranchised. The concept of privacy was glossed over. The full text of the Constitution and its Amendments should have been read today to help American recall and understand how we have strived and still strive ``to form a more perfect Union.''

* The Constitution was a compromise throughout. In addition to counting each black individual as only three-fifths of a person, it was virtually silent on slavery, the great injustice of the day. But after a way that almost destroyed the Union, after more than half a million died, and when brother fought brother, the Constitution was amended and updated to reflect the will of the people. Today, the American experiment continues to improve. Freedoms and protections of rights keep growing in the face of both consistent and ever-changing threats.

* Langston Hughes--an American who was denied the rights and freedoms that all of us deserve--wrote in Let America Be America Again, 1938,

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath--

America will be!

* Students attending under-performing schools, millions of Americans without health insurance, and widespread poverty demonstrate that even today, America never was America for far too many of us. But our Constitution lets us admit when we are wrong and correct our mistakes. Our collective vision of America must include an expanding sphere of freedom, liberty, and opportunity for all. And most importantly, we must never believe we are so infallible that we fail to strive for a ``more perfect Union.''

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