We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : Celebrating the Nation’s Charter as Problem and Solution
The traveler wandered the rutted roads from New England south to the Carolinas and rode the mule-drawn canal barges west through the mountains toward the Mississippi, all the while taking notes on the strange young country spread out before him.
When he returned to France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “I have never been more struck by the good sense and the practical judgment of the Americans than in the manner in which they elude the numberless difficulties resulting from their federal Constitution.”
A century-and-a-half later, the nation de Tocqueville viewed in adolescence has grown to adulthood. The Constitution, signed by its framers in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, is now the oldest written national charter of government in effect anywhere in the world. And Americans are still demonstrating a pragmatic genius for overcoming what de Tocqueville took to be the Constitution’s “numberless difficulties.”
Americans themselves complain ceaselessly about the inefficiencies and frustrations it entails, from the Fifth Amendment’s protection of criminals to the seemingly archaic checks and balances that almost paralyze modern government. Critics of the Constitution yearn for the more streamlined decision making of parliamentary systems in which prime ministers have extraordinary freedom of action and are quickly replaced if they lose popular support.
Why, then, with all the manifest burdens it imposes, has the Constitution been so widely admired and so little changed in 200 years? Why did British Prime Minister William Gladstone declare, in 1878, that “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man”?
The answer appears to be that the mechanisms designed by the Founding Fathers, while maddeningly slow and cumbersome, have proven remarkably effective at enabling the people of a huge and heterogeneous nation to preserve the pattern of “conflict within consen-
sus” that historians identify as the
unique feature of America’s
With one terrible exception, the Civil War, the constitutional process has enabled Americans to pass through periods of profound change, to disagree, struggle ferociously and sometimes violently over policies, yet ultimately reach decisions that most can support and almost all accept--without plunging into the abyss of fanaticism that has torn and destroyed so many societies.
A constitution should “allow very intense disagreements to be handled without violence and without loss of legitimacy” of the nation’s institutions, said UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger. By that measure, the Constitution has been a resounding success.
Unlike Marx and other more theoretical political thinkers, the framers of the Constitution started with human nature, which they saw as severely flawed and limited, then tried to design a government that would guarantee “the blessings of liberty” to the maximum extent possible within those limitations. After all, Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Reinforcing such pragmatism, a tradition of almost-religious veneration has grown up around the Constitution. One 19th-Century President called it the “ark of the people’s covenant” and said it must be “shield(ed) . . . from impious hands.” Advocates of sundry causes claim the Constitution’s support, and tourists line up in droves to see its first and last pages encased in bulletproof glass at the National Archives.
The American lexicon contains few political epithets more powerful than “unconstitutional.”
Bending the System
To be sure, this veneration has not eliminated the frustrations inherent in the system. Nor has it always been strong enough to prevent abuses of the rights and values embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In race relations particularly, as well as in periods of national crisis and in circumstances when public passions ran out of control, events have occurred that dishonored the Constitution’s high ideals.
The importance of those ideals has become so ingrained in the nation’s consciousness, however, that the system has shown a remarkable tendency to right itself and return to its intended course.
“Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people,” Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1802, “they fix too for the people the principles of their political creed.”
Within the framework of the Constitution, strong national leaders have tried to bend the system to their will--including Jefferson himself, who entered the White House with a restrictive view of presidential power but pushed his authority to the limit when the opportunity arose in 1803 to make the Louisiana Purchase and double the size of the nation.
Abraham Lincoln suspended portions of the Constitution during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt complained that the Constitution “permit(s) one set of people to hoist sails for their own amusement, and another set of people to put down anchors for their own purposes.”
“The result from the standpoint of progress has not been happy,” he said.
In contemporary times, writers, political scientists and practicing politicians all have advocated overhauls of the Constitution, arguing that the intricate system of checks and balances designed under 18th-Century theory will not do for the practice of the 21st.
Revision of Old Charter
Said political scientist Robert A. Dahl: “I’m increasingly doubtful that the Constitution is functioning really well. . . . I find it hard to engage in this year of celebrating the Constitution as if it were somehow a perfect document.”
Indeed, over recent years, 32 states have called for a new Constitutional Convention to revise the old charter, mostly responding to popular frustration with the federal deficit. Two more states joining the call would suffice to bring a convention into being for the first time since the one that ended 200 years ago this week. While no such conventions have been held since the first one, the Constitution has been amended 26 times. The 10 amendments constituting the Bill of Rights were added in 1791, and later amendments introduced such far-reaching changes as ending slavery, creating national guarantees of due process and individual rights, granting women the vote and providing for direct popular election of senators.
Important as such changes have been and wracking as was the history that produced them, all can be seen as extending and intensifying the nation’s commitment to the values and ideas underlying the original Constitution and, before it, the Declaration of Independence.
Many factors--including economic, regional and cultural differences--led to the cataclysm of the Civil War, for example. But one of the things that ultimately made a confrontation unavoidable was the inherent contradiction between the institution of slavery and the ideas of equality and fairness implicit in the Constitution.
Though the Founding Fathers had made clear their intention to create a national government superior to the states, they had sidestepped and compromised on what Madison called the “powder keg” of slavery--which many delegates even then saw in starkly moral terms.
In the end, more than 500,000 Americans died--more than in World War I and World War II combined--to meet the issue head-on. Henceforth, no state would have the right to abridge freedoms guaranteed to individuals by the national Constitution, and no institution or practice could stand permanently unchallenged if it contradicted the nation’s fundamental values.
What accounts for the relative stability of the American system during two centuries in which the governments of so many other countries were ripped apart and radically changed not once but several times? Scholars point to several factors:
- A nation that seems always in the midst of rapid change in its social rules and economic relationships has been correspondingly conservative in changing the political framework within which those changes occur.
- A people who concentrate in overwhelming numbers on the pragmatic and immediate problems of their private lives have been highly resistant to the fanatical approaches to politics and religion that have shattered other societies. “The great middle-of-road-consensus impulse of Americans,” one historian called it.
Indeed, American politics has tended to become most turbulent when large numbers of people believed that their personal lives--and hopes for the future--were threatened.
- A society that lacked an established church, a native aristocracy and a universal culture has clung to the Constitution as a symbol of unity.
“The Constitution has been to us what a king has often been to other nationalities,” Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell said in 1886.
The Constitution, of course, can neither be credited with all that has gone well in American history nor blamed for all failures. “There are other things in society” that help determine the fates of government and that can overwhelm even the most flexible of constitutions, as shown by the experience of numerous Latin American nations, political scientist Wolfinger pointed out.
America has been both wealthy and physically isolated. The nation’s wealth--natural resources, abundant land and salubrious climate--tended to reduce social conflict by holding out the hope of improving standards of living for most citizens most of the time. Politics in America has most often--though not always--been fought out on a relatively narrow middle ground of shared assumptions, values and symbols, lacking the intense, class-based politics that in France, for example, have caused three revolutions and nine different systems in the last 200 years.
U.S. institutions also have been free to develop without the distortions caused by fear of external enemies.
The importance of such natural advantages cannot be underestimated: Even with them, World War I, which brought widespread jailing of socialists and pacifists, World War II, with its internment of Japanese-Americans, and the McCarthy-era assaults on civil liberties in the 1950s all hinted at how fragile constitutional liberties can be when war or other threats convulse a nation.
At the same time, the nation’s wealth and size have posed unusual problems for the constitutional system. When the Constitution was written, many doubted that a republic could survive except in a geographically small unit.
In devising a system for a nation of continental proportions, “what’s at stake is the difference between trying to turn the Queen Mary around and trying to turn a rowboat,” UC Berkeley political scientist Nelson W. Polsby said.
The image of the Queen Mary is exactly what most of the Constitution’s current critics seize on. Just like an ocean liner, they claim, the constitutional system is simply too slow to respond to the accelerating pace of life in the age of instant global communications, instant food and instant nuclear annihilation.
The system has been strained still further, many political scientists say, by the decline of effective political parties, which helped for many years to knit Presidents and Congress together and thereby counterbalance the system’s tendency toward fractionation.
For all those reasons, “the fragmentation of power institutionalized in the system of checks and balances poses very severe questions for the constitutional system,” political scientist James McGregor Burns said.
Source of Stability
But the separation of powers, the inefficiency that so often makes government cumbersome, may, in fact, have been the greatest source of the Constitution’s stability.
“Most of the founders believed the idea that, given power, men would abuse it,” Degler said. Because of that belief, the governmental structure was built for distance, not for speed. To the Founding Fathers, a government that could handle day-to-day problems easily was less important than a government that could assure freedom and stability to generation after generation.
“Democratical states must always feel before they can see ,” George Washington wrote in 1785 to his Revolutionary War aide, the Marquis de Lafayette. “It is this that makes their governments slow, but the people will be right at last.”
“The heterogeneity of the nation demands that we pay attention to the opinions of others,” Polsby said. “It’s a strength of our Constitution that a consensus is necessary to do large things.”
The relationship between the Constitution and periods of national crisis has illustrated that point from the beginning.
While some states ratified the new charter quickly, in others the debates were long and arduous.
The unusual aspect of the debate, however, is that once it ended, so did serious opposition to the Constitution. Through the process of debate, a new consensus had been formed, and even those who had so strongly opposed the Constitution decided to accept it.
A more drawn-out, sometimes brutal process of consensus building centered on the nation’s attempts, beginning in the late 19th Century, to strengthen the rights and protect the welfare of individuals by bridling the powers of massive corporations and their owners--"the malefactors of great wealth,” as President Theodore Roosevelt called them.
As the Industrial Revolution transformed a country of villages, farms and small businesses into a nation of cities and giant factories, wrenching struggles took place--marked by political radicalism, riots, bloody confrontations, even anarchists’ bombs.
Yet the period illustrates the way the system works for long-term stability, even at the price of near-term upheaval.
Over time, Congress and Presidents responded to the rising demand for economic and social reform; new laws were passed providing for collective bargaining of labor contracts, regulations of wages and hours, restrictions on child labor and similar reforms.
The establishment of an oversight role for the federal government in the realm of economics and commerce represented a dramatic change. Few nations have so fundamentally changed their economic systems except in a revolution or the aftermath of a war.
“The underlying problems faced by human communities everywhere have to do with the intractable primordial differences that people have over race, religion and language,” Berkeley’s Polsby said.
“Religion was something they (the authors of the Constitution) solved right at the beginning,” language has never yet become the serious social division for the United States that it is, for example, in Canada, and, he said, “we’re on the road to doing something meaningful about race.”
The Constitution no doubt will face challenges in the next 200 years, but having handled those three “primordial differences,” perhaps it will continue to justify the boast of 19th-Century orator Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky: “The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity--unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”