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“What the Constitution Means to Me”

by | Apr 12, 2021 | Blog | 0 comments

“When I was fifteen years old, I traveled the country giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom, a debate coach, to help pay for college. I would travel to big cities like Denver and Fresno, and win a bunch of money.

Those are the words of Heidi Schreck, a fast-talking, loud actress, at the beginning of her 2019 smash Broadway play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” that she wrote and stars in.

She re-enacts that teenage debate, that she entitled, “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution.” First, she focuses in on James Madison’s ninth Amendment, part of his Bill of Rights.

She reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

“It means,” Heidi says, “that just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have that right.” In other words, you and I have rights we cannot identify, because they reside in darkness, unknown. Those rights listed in the Constitution reside in light, are known.

She points out that the twentieth-century Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas called the ninth Amendment “a penumbra,” that space between light and darkness, “of partial illumination.” Heidi says, “Here we are, trapped between what we can see, and what we can’t. We are stuck in a penumbra.”

Then, she reads through each of the four clauses that make up the Fourteenth Amendment’s first section, passed in 1866 during Reconstruction, and she comments on each clause.

Clause 1: “Any persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the state wherein they reside.”

“Clause 1,” Heidi says, “overturned the most disgusting Supreme Court decision in history: Dred Scott v. Sandford.” Dred Scott was a Black slave, who had lived with his master for five years in two free states, Illinois and Wisconsin. “He sued for freedom, because of his long residence on free soil.”

The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roger Taney, saw it differently. On March 6, 1857, it ruled that because Dred Scott was a Negro slave and not a citizen, he could not sue in federal courts. Clause 1 though made “all persons born on U.S. soil or naturalized U.S. citizens.”

Clause 2: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

“Clause 2,” Heidi says, “ensures that you, as Americans, are free to travel from State to State; free to buy property in any State; and free to pursue happiness in every State.” It also strikes at the heart of state’s rights, that a state can restrict certain people because of ethnic or racial or gender reasons.

Clause 3: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Heidi says, “This is one of the most miraculous clauses in our entire Constitution! The due process clause. We stole it from the Magna Carta.
“It ensures that the government cannot lock you up, take your stuff, or kill you—without a good reason. It is also the heart of the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, a case that is a penumbra.”

Clause 4: “No State shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Heidi says, “Clause 4 is even more miraculous than Clause 3. The equal protection clause.

“It uses the word ‘person,’ not ‘citizen,’ which means that if you are an undocumented immigrant, you must be given all the protections of Clause 3, the due process clause. You cannot be locked up without a fair trial. You cannot have anything, or anyone, seized from you.”

“The equal protection clause really is miraculous. People have used it to do so much good in this country. It was the heart of the Civil Rights Act. It was used to win all sorts of rights for working women, including the right to equal pay and the right to be free from sexual harassment.”

As Heidi talks about the Constitution, she also brings in her own issues: abuse and exploitation of women in her family, a date when she was seventeen that went awry, an unwanted pregnancy after college, an abortion, her great-great grandmother’s melancholia. She brings all the skeletons out.

At times, Heidi is funny. She says that the women in her family all cry the same way. She calls it “Greek Tragedy Crying.” (She wails. And wails. Very loudly. She recovers.) She then says, “I lost so many boyfriends this way. One of them told me that the crying just felt too aggressive.”

The Constitution is the oldest in the world, dating back to the summer of 1787. When first written, it threw away people, like the black slaves and women, but, with the help of amendments, “people have used it to do so much good in this country.” “We are stuck in a penumbra, between light and dark.”