- Historic Sites
You Missed Something Great On Tv (but You’ll Get Another Chance To See It)
February/March 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 2
The third significant theme is the equation of the Constitution with the Bill of Rights, a coupling that suggested to one commentator that the title of the series should be The Living Theater of the Bill of Rights . The delicate balance in the title indicates the producers’ conviction that the burden of the Constitution on those who apply it is for them to strike a balance between society’s interests and the protections afforded individuals by the Bill of Rights. The Constitution, Friendly observes in the last episode of the series, “seems relevant on some things, the Bill of Rights particularly, but not so relevant on others.”
This concern for relevance, this sensitivity to those aspects of the Constitution that are conspicuous at the present moment, is the one blemish on the series. To seek relevance is to renounce the historical perspective, a costly decision for a series that was intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the creation of the Constitution. A distorted and diminished understanding of the document results. Crucial though we consider the Bill of Rights today, for instance, it was irrelevant to the men of the Constitutional Convention. In describing the reaction to Elbridge Gerry’s motion on September 12, 1787, that the convention draft such a bill, a motion that was summarily rejected ten states to none, James Wilson of Pennsylvania explained: a bill of rights “never struck the minds of any member in the late convention till, I believe, within three days [actually five] of the dissolution of the body, and even then of so little account was the idea that it passed off in a short conversation.” The convention, Wilson continued, considered a bill of rights “neither an essential nor a necessary instrument in framing a system of government, since liberty may exist and be as well secured without it.”
The drafters of the Constitution were not indifferent to the rights of their fellow citizens; solicitude for them yielded for the moment, however, to what they regarded as the higher priority of saving the country from the dissolution of its government. As Madison warned before the convention, the threat to the nation was anarchy, not tyranny. The mission of the convention was to construct a government that could govern the American people, that could stanch the hemorrhaging of national authority and competence under the Articles of Confederation. Hence, it concentrated on the frame and structure of government, the original meaning of the word constitution . The framers would be surprised, and some would be pleased, by the vigor and sweep with which today’s Supreme Court applies the Bill of Rights, but they would be astonished to learn that litigation over the Bill of Rights could be considered the essence of the Constitution.
To understand and appreciate the Constitution and its framers, we should focus, as they did, on the architecture of government. We would welcome—indeed, we need—a television series recreating the action at the Constitutional Convention, which would explain by letting the debates speak through talented performers why we have a government of separated powers, a bicameral legislature, houses of the legislature based on different principles of representation, an electoral college, a Supreme Court —which would explain, in short, what our government is and why it is.
The country should challenge this same group of television producers to develop such a series. The enthusiasm created by The Constitution: That Delicate Balance should not tempt the producers to stamp out more episodes in this successful, law-case mold but to recreate the making of the Constitution. The aim of such a new series would not be to prove that Americans can match the British in making historical dramas but rather to increase public understanding of the Constitution by presenting it in the fullness of its historical context and liberating it from the arcane world of lawyers, judges, and courtrooms.
If it is possible to speak of a jewel in the crown of a republic, that jewel is our Constitution. This series has justly celebrated it. Now it needs more burnishing—but with different strokes.