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Is The Constitution Obsolete?
A recent book argues that to preserve the Republic, we must stop worshiping an outmoded document
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
But compromise is exactly what Lazare dislikes. He deplores the way in which the Constitution has defused disputes, “forced politicians to smooth them over, to seek common ground, to wheel and deal so that differences might be bridged.” Especially does he scorn the so-called great compromises—the waffling on slavery embodied in the rule that allowed a slave to be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining representation in the House and the creation of the Senate with equal votes for each state. These, he says, virtually guaranteed that only a breakdown in the constitutional system could permit the eradication of slavery. But granting the anachronistic unreasonableness of the Senate—there still is no reason for Delaware to have the same two votes as Pennsylvania, not to mention California—it was that or a small-state (and slave-state) walkout and no new government at all. By ignoring the mundane realities that shackled the convention, Lazare loads the dice and then plays with them in contrasting the peaceable abolition of slavery in Great Britain with what happened here. British abolitionists got slavery outlawed in 1833, he says, thanks to the Reform Bill of 1832, which made it “impossible to say no to a movement . . . both massive and middle class.” This ignores the political weight of the American South under any system of representation, as against that of a handful of British colonial planters with no strong parliamentary base. It also overlooks the cultural strength of American racism; there was no “massive” or “middle class” movement to end slavery that was frustrated by the Constitution. Immediate abolitionism remained a minority view right up to 1861. What was gaining ground was the idea of “free soil”—namely, of restricting the institution’s future expansion. The South rejected even that distant prospect, seceding when it still had thirty sure votes in the Senate (from fifteen slaveholding states out of thirty-four) to block any abolition amendment and could have maintained the barrier until there were forty-five states. Slaveholders jumped the gun long before the genuine danger point was reached—which makes it even more certain that they would have broken up the Union even earlier in the face of an immediate threat of abolition. The Constitution simply embodied a sad political reality: Only naked power could abolish slavery while keeping the South on board.
But Lazare ignores reality when it doesn’t fit his case. Let me take another pair of examples. He holds that the 1830s were a period of “biting constitutional dictatorship ... in which Americans were prevented from acting nationally to institute internal improvements [or] create a pro-industrial economic policy.” It seems strange, therefore, that between 1830 and 1860 the nation expanded its rail network from 23 miles to 30,626 miles, increased the value of its exports from $72 million to $334 million, dredged rivers and harbors, mapped and surveyed the West, and produced enough manufactured goods to lay the foundation for what economic history rightly calls an industrial “takeoff.”
Lazare denounces the “long and tortuous” amending process, which “severely constrained” efforts to change the Constitution. But what are the facts? Once an amendment is submitted to the states, how long does it take to get the required three-fourths of them to ratify? Leave out the curious twenty-seventh (no pay raise for Congress to take effect until an election intervenes) that took from 1789 to 1992, and consider the Bill of Rights (two years and three months in an age of slow communications) as a single unit. The median time for the remaining sixteen is—can you guess?—one year.
Almost half the book is devoted to the post-1945 period, during which, Lazare insists, other democratic nations deftly modernized their political systems while we limped and tottered into our present decrepitude (apparently the flourishing fifties don’t count), dragging the anchor of the Constitution behind us. Wherein did we fail? Well, we got a Congress increasingly ineffective because of a fragmented committee structure (not prescribed by the Constitution) and Presidents who are not so much leaders as personalities created by image makers (and what has the Constitution to do with that?). Lazare blames the Iran-contra scandal and the easy escape of the principals in it on the Constitution’s vagueness about responsibilities and punishments. That’s like blaming the banking laws for embezzlement.
Our “unraveling social fabric”? It’s partly due to “an insane jumble of conflicting [local] jurisdictions” that trip up coordinated planning to tackle interlocking problems of race, crime, poverty, deindustrialization and deurbanization. But many, if not all, of those mini-satrapies—counties, townships, school or sewage or water districts, and the like—could be combined or eliminated by the states if they so chose. Eager to blame our failure to grapple effectively with our agonies on a presumed naive faith in our unimprovable Constitution, Lazare leaves unmentioned a few such small matters as the rise and fall of the party system (like judicial review, an interpolation not in the original Constitution); the influence of money and television in politics; the antiurban tradition generated in an agrarian past; the diverse nature of an immigrant-enriched populace; frontier individualism; the success record of free enterprise in a new and booming country.