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A Few Parchment Pages Two Hundred Years Later
The framers of the Constitution were proud of what they had done but might be astonished that their words still carry so much weight. A distinguished scholar tells us how the great charter has survived and flourished.
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
The American Constitution has functioned and endured longer than any other written constitution of the modern era. It imbues the nation with energy to act while restraining its agents from acting improperly. It safeguards our liberties and establishes a government of laws, not of men and women. Above all, the Constitution is the mortar that binds the fifty-state edifice under the concept of federalism; it is the symbol that unifies nearly 250 million people of different origins, races, and religions into a single nation.
Over two centuries dozens of constitutions adopted in other countries have gone into the scrap heap. The United States Constitution has outlived almost all its successors. The longevity of the Constitution makes us wonder whether its thirty-nine signers planned it that way, and if they did, why doesn’t the Constitution declare itself to be perpetual, unlike the weak “perpetual” union—the Articles of Confederation—that it succeeded? Somehow the adjective was overlooked in the federal convention, while the word compact was deliberately avoided in a vain attempt to forestall the issue of whether the Constitution was a compact between the states, which any party could disavow, or between the government and the people, which States’ Righters might have found unacceptable.
However, the Constitution does start with a hint that it was aiming for longevity. The Preamble, in Gouverneur Morris’s incomparable language, says that its purpose is “to form a more perfect Union” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity....” President Washington in his Farewell Address speaks of the “efficacy and permanency of your union.” Nevertheless, both the supremacy and the permanence of the Constitution were to be challenged within a decade. To oppose the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which curbed the actions of hostile aliens and held the press criminally accountable for “false” and “malicious” writings about the government, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined forces to write the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These asserted that a state had the power to “interpose” when the government exceeded its powers as enumerated in the Constitution.
By 1828 the challenge of “interposition” had become the threat of “nullification” when John C. Calhoun endorsed South Carolina’s refusal to obey a new tariff measure. In spite of vigorous support by Daniel Webster and President Andrew Jackson, the life-span of the Constitution seemed jeopardized on the eve of the Civil War as “nullification” gave way to “secession,” and the Southern states claimed that the Constitution was dissoluble at the pleasure of any state that might wish to secede.
Confronted by a burgeoning secessionist movement, President Lincoln declared, “I hold that, in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.” The word was out at last. The Union forged by the Constitution could not be dismantled. To put the issue beyond controversy required four years of war and a Supreme Court decision to settle the question of whether the Constitution was a compact of sovereign states or a compact of the people of the states, as was originally intended. The Supreme Court confirmed the military decision, denying the right of states to secede. In Texas v. White in 1869 it declared, “The Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union, composed of indestructible States.”
One of the clues to the mystery of the Constitution’s durability is the plastic quality that makes it applicable to a rapidly changing society. At the convention it was the Committee of Detail’s deliberate intention, in the words of its draftsman, Edmund Randolph, “to insert essential principles only” in order to accommodate the Constitution “to times and events” and “to use simple and precise language, and general propositions....” Randolph’s notion of confining a constitution to broad principles was a masterstroke that contributed immensely to that document’s enduring suitability and relevance, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania contributed further by putting Randolph’s draft into smoother prose. Finally, the Committee of Style and Arrangement, under the swift and sure guidance of Gouverneur Morris and his talented colleagues, gave us the final draft, a masterpiece of conciseness.
How different, indeed, from most modern state constitutions, which are often hugely long with their general principles buried under a heap of minute local and transitory details. The great charter, a few parchment pages adopted in eighty-four working days, is a broad blueprint of governance, timeless in character.