I’m finally catching up with my personal reading and dove into a couple of old New Yorkers, only to stumble upon a great article and familiar name. Jill Lepore was writing about King Philip’s War way back in the day, and has since gone on to bigger battles of all sorts. She is now David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University where she also chairs the History and Literature Program. Jill is a regular contributor to the New Yorker.
Her January article about the Constitution, "The Commandments: The Constitution and its Worshippers," was positively eye-opening.
A few facts, a little history—next thing you don’t know what to believe.
I can admit to reading the Constitution exactly once when I was forced to in college. That one reading apparently puts me in rarefied air among Americans, who seem as likely to misquote and misuse the Constitution as they are unlikely to read it. At 4,400 words (before the Amendments), it’s one of the shortest constitutions in existence--but still too long, it seems, to read.
Here are some of the (often verbatim) lessons from Jill’s good article:.
- Anti-Federalists charged that the Constitution was so difficult to read that it amounted to a conspiracy against the understanding of a plain man--that it was willfully incomprehensible. Patrick Henry believed that what was drafted in Philadelphia was “of such an intricate and complicated nature, that no man on this earth can know its real operation.” Benjamin Franklin was sure that the document had its faults, and just as sure that the framers were fallible. He called the Constitution an “instrument”; he meant that it was a legal instrument, like a will. William Manning, a New England farmer and Revolutionary veteran, thought that it was another kind of instrument: “It was made like a Fiddle, with but few Strings, but so that the ruling Majority could play any tune upon it they please."
- Ratification was touch and go. Rhode Island, the only state to hold a popular referendum on the Constitution, rejected it. In state ratifying conventions elsewhere, the Constitution passed by the narrowest of margins: eighty-nine to seventy-nine in Virginia, thirty to twenty-seven in New York, a hundred and eighty-seven to a hundred and sixty-eight in Massachusetts.
- The original Constitution was simply filed away and, later, shuffled from one place to another. When New York’s City Hall underwent renovations, the Constitution was transferred to the Department of State. The following year, it moved with Congress to Philadelphia and, in 1800, to Washington, where it was stored at the Treasury Department until it was shifted to the War Office. In 1814 as Washington, D.C. burned, three clerks stuffed it into a linen sack and carried it to a gristmill in Virginia. In the eighteen-twenties, when someone asked James Madison where it was, he admitted to having no idea. In 1875, the Constitution found a home in a tin box in the bottom of a closet in a new building that housed the Departments of State, War, and Navy. In 1894, it was sealed between glass plates and locked in a safe in the basement. And then, in 1921, a miracle: Warren Harding called the Constitution divinely inspired, ordering the Librarian of Congress to take the parchment out of storage and put it into a shrine. Presumably, that was the year it became holy and immutable.
- “Find It in the Constitution,” the Tea Party rally signs read. Forty-four hundred words and “God” is not one of them, as Benjamin Rush complained to John Adams, hoping for an emendation: “Perhaps an acknowledgement might be made of his goodness or of his providence in the proposed amendments.” It was not. “White” isn’t in the Constitution, but Senator Stephen Douglas, of Illinois, was still sure that the federal government was “made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” What about black men? “They are not included, and were not intended to be included,” the Supreme Court ruled, in 1857. Railroads, slavery, banks, women, free markets, privacy, health care, wiretapping: not there. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that gives the Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court the right to declare that white and colored children must attend the same public schools,” Senator James Eastland, of Mississippi, said, after Brown v. Board of Education. “Have You Ever Seen the Words Forced Busing in the Constitution?” read a sign carried in Boston in 1975. “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” Christine O’Donnell asked Chris Coons during a debate in October. When Coons quoted the First Amendment, O’Donnell was flabbergasted: “That’s in the First Amendment?” Left-wing bloggers slapped their thighs; Coons won the election in a landslide. But the phrase “separation of church and state” really isn’t in the Constitution or in any of the amendments.
- About a quarter of American voters are what political scientists call “know nothings,” meaning that they possess almost no general knowledge of the workings of their government. For futures, none of these phrases are in the Constitution: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” (Karl Marx, 1875) “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “All men are created equal.” “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” You have been warned.