BOOK REVIEW : The Bill of Rights: Full of Fighting Words : A PEOPLE'S CHARTER; The Pursuit of Rights in America, by James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns , Knopf $30; 544 pages


Where have all the tall ships gone? Where can we round up 200 Elvis impersonators?

The bicentennial of the Bill of Rights is upon us, but no fireworks are ascending to celebrate its arrival. Unlike previous exercises in patriotic hype, the moment is being commemorated almost exclusively in print.

Perhaps, though, that is the best place for it. As we are reminded in "A People's Charter" by historians James MacGregor Burns (something of a national institution himself) and Stewart Burns, the Bill of Rights has long been regarded as "a parchment barrier" against tyranny and oppression.

Yet the Bill of Rights is not holy writ, the authors insist. Rather, it's "a dynamic, evolving people's charter of rights," and the message of their book is that liberty requires not only eternal vigilance but active struggle.

"Moral claims of rights would not be enough in themselves to carry the day for liberty," they write. "Rights had to be fought for in every sector of the political battlefield, by thousands of grass-roots warriors led by able leaders with strong values."

Nor is the history of civil rights in America "a long march toward the inevitable realization of liberty and democracy," as the authors point out in lively detail.

"In fact, as we have come to understand in the 20th Century, the march can be diverted or stopped for decades."

The Pilgrims, they remind us, lived under "a theocracy that sought to control every aspect of human behavior, to crush human autonomy."

They illuminate exactly why John Peter Zenger, a Colonial printer, fought so spiritedly for freedom of the press: "Printing was a living."

And they focus their attention and concern on whole peoples and groups of people--African-Americans, American Indians, women and the landless in general--who suffered under legal disabilities ranging from disenfranchisement to outright slavery.

In one of a thousand moments of bitter irony, they recall that Chief Justice Roger Taney, "defender of 'equal rights for all,' " decreed that "the Constitution recognizes the right of property of the master in a slave."

The authors refuse to comfort us with sweet nothings out of a civics text--or, for that matter, the conventional wisdom of traditional history.

Instead, for example, they evoke the electrifying moment in 1827 when a black woman named Sojourner Truth stood up at a rally and spoke words of protest that still ring with the power of poetry:

"Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me--and ar'n't I a woman?"

And, finally, the authors refuse to reassure us that the challenge of putting the Bill of Rights to work has been fulfilled: one quarter of "A People's Charter" is devoted to the struggle for civil and human rights, here and abroad, in our own lifetime.

"Whatever the enduring power of the Bill of Rights," the authors conclude, "the rights of Americans would remain in political and intellectual cross-fires."

"A People's Charter" is a magisterial work, high-minded and erudite.

But it also sparks and flashes with a healthy sense of irony and indignation--the authors are idol-smashers who see the Bill of Rights as goad rather than Scripture, and they will not relent in their prodding of the American conscience.

What more appropriate way to celebrate its bicentennial?

Next: Richard Eder reviews "Whiteout: Lost in Aspen" by Ted Conover (Random House).

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