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'To form a more perfect Union,' but reading sparks some division

Visitors to the National Archives file past the U.S. Constitution, which was given an almost-full reading Thursday in the House.
Visitors to the National Archives file past the U.S. Constitution, which was given an almost-full reading Thursday in the House. (Matt Mcclain)

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 7, 2011

Finally the time had come to recite the Constitution aloud on the House floor. But first came the bickering over which parts of the nation's founding document to read at all.

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House Republicans, who orchestrated the symbolic exercise as an early gesture to the tea party movement, touted it as a way to bring the new Congress, and the people they represent, back to America's roots.

But they didn't want to go all the way back.

They skipped several passages that no longer apply, including those that condoned slavery, angering some Democrats. On a day designed to celebrate the Founding Fathers' growing role in the nation's political discourse, Democrats accused Republicans of distorting history and the men who wrote it.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House's top-ranking African American, declined to participate in the reading. He said omitting the slavery clauses amounted to "revisionist history."

"It could have been very educational if all the members talked about the United States Constitution as a living document, talked about how this country wrestled with things like race and gender," Clyburn said in an interview.

But they didn't. Lawmakers of both parties were called forth, more than 130 in all, to recite passages - and said no more.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led the floor proceedings, defended the decision to choose an edited version of the document. He said he consulted the Congressional Research Service, among other sources, and that he was not trying to protect the framers of the Constitution.

"The intent was to read the Constitution as it currently operates," Goodlatte said in an interview.

'We the people . . . '

The exercise began on a historic note - never before had the Constitution been read aloud on the floor of the House.

Newly minted Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) was first up and had the honor of reciting three of the most famous words in American history, and the celebrated preamble that follows them.

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union . . . "

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