Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint

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In this year of the bicentennial of the Constitution, American Heritage asked a number of historians, authors, and public figures to address themselves to one or both of these questions:

1. What change would you like to see in the Constitution and why?

2. What article or clause of the Constitution is of particular significance to you—and in what historical, political, personal, or other connection?

From among the many answers, we’ve selected a variety of replies, all adding up to a provocative forum of opinions and passions.

I. Changes I Would Like to See

The Former Presidents Have Their Say

I would favor an amendment that would lengthen the term of members of the House of Representatives from two years to four years. Elections to the House should be staggered so that half the seats would be up every two years.

To me the most significant amendment to the Constitution is the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to women. Though not a feminist by today’s standards, my mother was vitally interested in political affairs, and from my early days onward it has always seemed to me both important and appropriate for women to have as active a say in public issues as men.

-Richard M. Nixon President, 1969–74.

I do not see any overwhelming current need to change the United States Constitution; although, I would favor the repeal of the Twenty-second Amendment that imposes a two-term limitation on a President’s service. In my judgment the American people can be trusted as to the length of service of a President and should not be constrained by an arbitrary limit.

As the first individual to be nominated by a President and approved for Vice-Président by the House and Senate under the Twenty-fifth Amendment, I have a very personal relationship to that amendment. The Twenty-fifth Amendment, in spite of my personal involvement, was a most important improvement in our Constitution because it provided a badly needed process by which a vice-presidential vacancy could be filled. It also provides additional, very constructive provisions relating to procedures if a President is unable to perform his duties. The Constitution prior to the Twenty-fifth Amendment was seriously deficient in that a vice-presidential vacancy for any reason could not be filled between elections, and there was no established procedure in the critical event that a President was unable to carry out his responsibilities. Both of these deficiencies were remedied by the Twenty-fifth Amendment.

-Gerald R. Ford President, 1974–77.

Changes I would like to see in the Constitution:

1. Change treaty ratification to not more than a majority of the Senate.

2. Elect Presidents for one six- or seven-year term.

-Jimmy Carter President, 1977–81.

The Question of Amendments

We don’t need a new amendment to the Constitution and there’s nothing wrong with the document we have. What we do need is a national leadership that has some faint notion of what the Constitution is all about.

-Dan T. Carter Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Emory University.

I would like to change Article V to read that whenever the people by majority vote in a state election propose a constitutional amendment, it shall be put on the ballot of all the state elections at the earliest possible moment and that, when passed by the majority of the states, such an amendment shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of this Constitution.

A very small number of voters in the United States (all of them white and male) gave away the right of succeeding generations to modify their basic governmental document. As it now stands the majority of the people in the thirteen least populated states (probably no more than 10 percent of our total population) can block the will of the rest of the nation. Why is this permitted? Because of our veneration of the Constitution and the American ideology that promotes a fear of government rather than a faith in empowering the will of the people. To the criticism that such an easy amending process would eliminate the need for a constitution determining how power shall be allocated, I answer that this assumes that American voters cannot discriminate between the powers they wish limited or given in a fundamental constitution and their legislative preferences. Our Constitution favors the liberty of the private realm where informal power reigns. There is much to be said for that liberty, but it is by no means the loftiest liberty that people can aspire to, one in which the common good is seen as incorporating the nurturing of all people whether they be privileged or not.