Speech at the Ceremonies Celebrating the 175th Anniversary of the Ratification of the Constitution, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

June 21, 1963


Philadelphia, PA

Now as always, when the Constitution is too narrowly interpreted on a word-for-word basis, it can too easily become a crutch for reaction, a reactionalization, an excuse for maintaining the status quo. This is the very thing that Jefferson feared, so long ago, when he urged us not to regard the wording of the document with “sanctimonious reverence.” My point is that the Constitution was never meant to specify every detail, every individual right in the relations of man to man in this country. It was intended to set forth certain duties of government and certain restrictions on government—nowhere in its wording does it pretend to tell us, as individual citizens, how to treat our neighbors. But what Woodrow Wilson called the spirit of the Constitution does, and has always done, just that. We must understand the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution—the spirit that “will always be the spirit of the age.”