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Annotated Lyrics

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Americans whipped the British and secured their independence.

The American Revolution was fought between 1775 and 1783. The colonies declared their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.

That didn't guarantee a country fit for their descendants.

The states at first agreed to just a loose confederation.

The first version of the United States of America operated under an agreement among the states called, “The Articles of Confederation,” written in 1777 and ratified in 1781. It described the union as a “league of friendship” among sovereign states. The Articles authorized a one-House Congress to conduct foreign policy, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, Congress lacked the power either to raise taxes or to regulate commerce. There was no separate executive branch to enforce the law, and Congress could create no courts other than admiralty courts.

They didn't have the unity it takes to forge a nation.

So four years after wartime,

The American Revolution is generally dated from 1775, with the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, until 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the Constitutional Convention took place in 1787. The Battle of Yorktown, the decisive last battle of the war, was actually fought from September 29 to October 19, 1781. With the help of the French, George Washington was able to lay siege to the army of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, eventually surrounding them with artillery until Cornwallis was forced to surrender. It took fifteen months, however, to agree on all treaty provisions, in part because the American alliance with France and the French alliance with Spain meant that a full armistice required Britain to reach acceptable terms with all three countries.

Philly saw a secret meeting

Following a navigation dispute with Maryland, Virginia called for representatives of all the states to convene at Annapolis on September 11, 1786. Only five states showed up, however, and so, as suggested in a report drafted by Alexander Hamilton, they wound up recommending a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia to consider potential improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Philadelphia delegates were fearful that, given the precarious state of the Confederation, premature publicity of tentative proposals might doom the Convention to failure and discourage the delegates from speaking freely and even changing their minds as discussions proceeded. They decided to close the doors to the public and agreed to a pledge of secrecy, which apparently was all but entirely kept.

Of men who knew without a change, their freedom would be fleeting.

Their government was feeble. It needed a solution.

In sixteen weeks, they hammered out a U.S. Constitution.

The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

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The drafters feared their wobbly league of states would lead to ruin.

From now on, “We, the People” must be joined in perfect union.

Instead of being an agreement among the states, the Framers cast their new Constitution as an act of “We, the People,” requiring that it be ratified not by state legislatures, but by conventions in each state elected by “the People” to decide whether or not to approve the new charter.

In such a bold experiment, they had to take some chances.

They built a federal system

The Framers envisioned a system in which “the People” would have given certain governmental powers to the new national government, but in which the states would otherwise continue to govern their citizens.

And a structure with three branches:

The Constitution creates a system of checks and balances among three different branches of government that generally follow a “separation of powers.” This distinguishes our national government from a parliamentary system in which members of the legislature also run the government’s administrative departments.

A Congress to enact the laws.

Article I creates the federal legislative branch, including both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The courts to judge correctly.

Article III of the Constitution mandates the creation of a Supreme Court of the United States and such lower federal courts that Congress would decide to create. If Congress had not created lower federal courts, federal cases would have had to start in state courts.

A President takes care that laws are carried out directly.

Article II vests “executive power” in the President of the United States and requires the President to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

A lot of it was brilliant, but some of it was knavery.

To get the southern states to join, the draft protected slavery.

The Constitution never uses the word “slavery,” but it did make critical concessions to the slaveholding states. For example, under Section 2 of Article I, the number of seats each state would be given in the House of Representatives would depend on the size of the state’s population. The slave states were allowed to count three-fifths of their slave population in the state’s total population number even though slaves were, of course, entirely excluded from the political process. Counting slaves in a state’s population also increased the number of electoral votes that the state would have in any presidential election under Article II. Section 9 of Article I prohibited Congress from banning the slave trade for 21 years, that is, until 1808, and Article V made it impermissible to hasten this date by constitutional amendment. Article IV provided that slaves would remain slaves even if they escaped to free states and would be returned to their owners on demand.

 

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The states had varied interests. Their differences were vast.

The most glaring differences were between the states that relied on slavery to support their economy and those that did not. But there were other differences, as well. For example, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia all had good ports and could take advantage of those states that did not by charging excessively for the use of their ports for importing or exporting goods. Section 10 of Article I thus provided that, without the consent of Congress, states could not impose “duties,” a form of tax, on exports or imports except to cover the cost of inspecting those goods.

But delegates agreed they had to get a charter passed.

Some states signed on with promises there’d soon be some amendments.

Supporters of the Constitution successfully persuaded each state ratifying constitution that they had to vote for the draft on an all-or-nothing basis. Many thought amendments were unnecessary to protect people’s rights because checks and balances in the federal government, as well as the representatives’ connection to “the people” would lead the new national Congress to steer clear of abuses. It was common, however, for the state conventions to recommend amendments. The debate in Massachusetts over a ratification vote without amendments was especially heated. Only after intense and prolonged deliberation did the members of the Massachusetts Convention vote to ratify the Constitution and offer nine proposed amendments that the new Congress would be exhorted to approve and send forward to the states. James Madison’s pledge to promote amendments was also critical in such closely divided states as New York and Virginia.

The Bill of Rights brought ten of these. Their impact is tremendous.

When the First Congress convened, James Madison took the lead in urging the House to consider amendments responding to the various states’ demands for change. At the time Congress convened, two states had yet to ratify. Madison worried that putting the matter off could lead to demands for a new constitutional convention. Congress wound up recommending twelve amendments, not ten. The first, dealing with the number and apportionment of U.S. Representatives, never became part of the Constitution. The second Article, limiting the ability of Congress to increase the salaries of its members, was ratified in 1992, almost exactly two centuries later. It is now the 27th Amendment. The first ten amendments were not actually known as the Bill of Rights when first adopted. The Supreme Court did not use that term for the first ten amendments until 1893, and the label did not become common until the early twentieth century.

We have free speech, a robust press, the right to pray or not,

The First Amendment provides: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Limits on police power, but not on private thought.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fifth Amendment forbids “double jeopardy,” and protects against self-incrimination. The Fifth and Sixth Amendments also guarantee defendants additional rights at trial. The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, as well as the imposition of excessive bail or fines.

Success was never certain despite the Revolution.

Economic turmoil in the states had become so dire that several delegates to the Constitutional Convention predicted war could break out if a new free, stable, and effective government could not be established.

It took ten months to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

“Ten months” is an approximation. The Constitution provided that it would come into effect once ratified by nine of the original thirteen states. The convention concluded on September 17, 1787. The ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified on June 21, 1788, only a little over NINE months later. The last four states to ratify were Virginia (June 25, 1788), New York (July 26, 1788), North Carolina (November 21, 1789) and Rhode Island (May 29, 1790). But without the participation of Virginia and New York, the nation might well not have survived. So we rounded up to “ten months,” not down to “nine!”

 

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From bondage, thousands tried to flee. We still salute their bravery,

There is no definitive account of how many slaves tried to flee and how many succeeded. The National Freedom Center estimates that more than 100,000 slaves tried to escape through the Underground Railroad. Other estimates suggest that the number of slaves to escape annually in the first half of the 1800s was probably between several hundred and a thousand.

Six hundred twenty thousand soldiers died because of slavery.

The estimate of 620,000 comes from an 1889 study by amateur historians William F. Fox and Thomas Leonard Livermore. Research published in 2012 by J. David Hacker, a demographic historian from Binghamton University, suggests the actual number might be as high as 750,000.

The Civil War Amendments finally set a new direction

Constitutional lawyers typically refer to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as the Civil War Amendments. The Thirteenth, ratified in December 1865, abolished slavery. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864 and by the House on January 31, 1865. Lincoln thus lived to see it recommended by Congress, but was assassinated before it became part of the Constitution. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited any race-based denial of voting rights, a ban that was largely toothless until Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 almost a century later.

By promising due process and for all equal protection.

Congress had high hopes that the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, would go far in establishing a just new political order following the Civil War. It granted both national and state citizenship to any person born in the United States, thus ending any debate whether African-Americans were citizens. It also provided: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” For nearly a century, however, because of narrow interpretations by the Supreme Court and fierce Southern resistance to racial equality, it hardly lived up to its promise. The modern Court, however, has found in the Fourteenth Amendment a prohibition against intentional race and sex discrimination, as well as guarantees of such fundamental rights as the right to marry, to have access to contraception, and, for women, to decide whether to carry pregnancy to term. The Court also regards the Fourteenth Amendment as providing almost all the same guarantees of individual rights against state action that the Bill of Rights assures us against the federal government.

But women didn’t get the right to vote ‘til 1920.

            Women’s suffrage was guaranteed by the Nineteenth Amendment.

The times are still a-changing, and the challenges still plenty.

The 1964 Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” is among the best-known protest songs in U.S. history and was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. Despite the Constitution—as currently written and interpreted—U.S. citizens still experience vast inequalities in terms of education, wealth, and income security. Should the Constitution be used to address those issues? What about climate change? Health care? The rights of transgender persons? There are still plenty of issues needing attention and lots to debate concerning how those issues should best be addressed.

No government is perfect.  We still need new solutions

To live up to the promise of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Now some will try to fool you, say the Constitution’s static,

Just like a piece of parchment getting dusty in the attic.

Lawyers, judges, and legal scholars have long debated how the Constitution should be properly interpreted. Self-described “originalists” believe the text should be applied in ways that the original drafters intended or according to what they call the “original public meaning” of the words they used in 1787 or when the Constitution was amended. Those who argue for a “living Constitution” believe the words should be given whatever plausible interpretation would best take account of current needs and knowledge. This verse puts the song in the “living Constitution” camp. What do you think?

But every generation gets to fight for new improvements.

We have a constitution that was built on protest movements.

The American Revolution was a protest against the perceived abuses of the British King and Parliament. The antislavery movement ultimately led to the Thirteenth Amendment. The temperance protests led to Prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment. The Women’s Suffrage Movement led to the Nineteenth Amendment. The modern Civil Rights Movement led to the abolition of the poll tax in federal elections (Twenty-Fourth Amendment), and the Antiwar Movement led to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.

Sometimes the people change the text,

Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress may propose amendments to the Constitution. Likewise, Congress may call a constitutional convention if so requested by two-thirds of the states. Any proposal from either Congress or a convention will become part of the Constitution if ratified by three-fourths of the states. Congress also decides if ratification may be done by state legislatures or if the states must hold ratifying conventions. So far, there have been only 27 formal amendments adopted through the Article V process.

Sometimes interpretation.

Most of the profound changes in constitutional law have not resulted from formal amendments to the Constitution, but because the Supreme Court has given the text new interpretations. For example, no change in constitutional text can explain either the 1954 decision that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional or the 2015 decision that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. Both decisions were based on the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868!

But either way a change can come when justice moves the nation.

Ningún gobierno es perfecto. Somos la solución

Para cumplir con la promesa de la Constitución.

These lines say, “No government is perfect. We are the solution to live up to the promise of the Constitution.”

 

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Our founding generation thought the king was a disaster.

The Americans’ primary gripe against Parliament in 1776 was its failure to check the King’s abuses. Thomas Paine, the author of the incendiary pamphlet Common Sense, described George III as a “hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh” and the “Royal Brute of Great Britain.” The Declaration of Independence lodged twenty-seven separate complaints about the conduct of George II in order to demonstrate that “[t]he history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

They fought to make a country where the people would be master.

So if you think your country isn’t acting as it should be,

Register and vote to make your country what it could be.

Seize your part in history. Make a resolution.

Voting is not the only way to make your personal connection with the ongoing story of our Constitution, but it is indispensable. In a working democracy, people in power give serious consideration to the interests of all when they make decisions for all. If you want them to work for your support, you have to be a voter.

Together let’s give meaning to the U.S. Constitution.

Their government was feeble. It needed a solution.

And now we get to build upon the U.S. Constitution.

 

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 (One vote can make a difference.)

Add your voice!

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 (Stand up for your convictions.)

Add your voice!

Add your voice!

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 (You’re part of “We, the People.”)

Add your voice!

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