- Historic Sites
Taking Another Look At The Constitutional Blueprint
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
I have often tried to get students to entertain the possibility of having a more democratic form of government, and I find that by the time they are eighteen, they have already imbibed the fear of government power that animated the Founders. We have a liberal government in which the distribution of formal power is arrived at by technically democratic elections. We have very little substantive democracy in my opinion.
Joyce Appleby Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles.
I would like to see the amendment article itself amended. Omitting the Bill of Rights, which is properly considered part of the Constitution, the frame of government has been amended only sixteen times, and two of these amendments (XVIII and XXI) cancel each other. The extreme difficulty of amending the Constitution has been unhealthy for the nation, sapping the vigor of constitutional democracy and causing necessary changes and adaptations to occur along the tortuous pathways of the “living” Constitution.
Two amendments should be made to Article V. First, the authority of a national convention called to amend the Constitution on the application of two-thirds of the states should be limited to the specifically proposed amendment or amendments. This would dispose of an ambiguity that has stood in the way of amendment by convention. Second, amendments should become part of the Constitution upon ratification by two-thirds of the legislatures of the states or of conventions therein. This reduction of the three-fourths requirement would facilitate the process without opening the door to illconsidered and ill-advised amendments.
Merrill D. Peterson Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History, University of Virginia.
The old Constitution was an admirable document; contrary to Macaulay’s criticism, it was both sail and anchor, establishing the legal principles of citizens’ rights and the powers of their government. That is why, in my opinion, all of its amendments after the Twelfth (1804: the trial period was over) have been unnecessary (except perhaps the Lame Duck one—the Twentieth, 1933). The emancipation of the slaves, the citizenship rights of Negroes, the taxation of individuals, the popular election of senators, the right of women to vote, the restriction of alcohol and the restoration thereof, the limitation of the Presidency to two terms, the extension of the right to vote for eighteen-year-olds, et cetera — all of these could have been achieved and, in most cases, were achieved without amendments to the old Constitution that now looks like a lopsided Christmas tree, infested by brummagem ornaments, some of them outright silly—as, for example, the last amendment, “extending” the vote to eighteen-year-olds (1971: just after Woodstock).
I am convinced, for example, that abortion is murder; but I think it is ridiculous to believe that abortion would be curtailed, let alone stopped, by an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution. We might as well enact an amendment prohibiting murder. When the amendment prohibiting lying is adopted, we will have become the people of liars.
John Lukacs Professor of History, Chestnut Hill College.
No changes. Interpret and reinterpret, but don’t rewrite.
Patricia K. Bonomi Professor of History, New York University.
Given the preposterous expense, the corrupting impact of campaign financing, and the diversionary effects of elections every two years, I would adopt a system of quadrennial elections for the House of Representatives. This scheme might occasionally provide Presidents with something resembling a majority in the Congress if House elections were held in presidential election years. Of course, quadrennial elections for the House would make it necessary to adjust Senate terms (two classes, eight years each) to eliminate all off-year elections.
Gerhard Casper Dean, University of Chicago Law School.
I would repeal the Twenty-second Amendment, which limits an elected President to two terms in office. It was largely conceived, in spite, by the Roosevelt-haters of the 1940s. They couldn’t lay a glove on FDR when he was alive; so they nailed him when he was dead. Ironically, so far it is the perpetrators who have suffered. They would have been able to reelect Elsenhower in 1960. But it is the whole nation that suffers in the long run. In a real crisis we want the best man possible, and that man just might be a two-term resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Walter Lord Historian. Author of, most recently, The Night Lives On.