Looking in America's Constitutional Mirror

Posted on Huffington Post, July 16, 2007 | 05:46 PM (EST)
Read More: Breaking Politics News, George Mason, Alexander Hamilton
Americans care about their Constitution. They told me so this spring while I promoted my book, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented The Constitution. Appearing before dozens of community groups, and on media interviews and call-in shows, I spent hours talking with Americans about their Constitution, its history and how it works today.
Many long for an earlier, halcyon era when disinterested giants peopled our public life. These are surprised to hear of the bitter and bruising conflicts at the Constitutional Convention. Others, asking about the Framers’ discussion of religion, are disappointed to learn that religion came up only once during the four months of the Convention: when the delegates rejected a suggestion that they start each daily session with a prayer. What, some ask, would the Framers think of our immigration policy? Or our political campaigns? Or the War on Terror? And, hey, don’t we have a right to bear arms under the Second Amendment? These questions and many more reflected Americans’ hunger for serious talk about how the Constitution was written and how it should work today.
The questions could be personal. Among the more poignant moments came from those who feel excluded by the tableau of rich, white men who founded the nation:
* A woman asked, plaintively, whether there wasn’t some woman in Philadelphia, or somewhere in the country, who influenced some part of the Constitution? (I didn’t find one.)
* A black man in Philadelphia asked how George Washington possibly could have thought it was right to own slaves? (He didn’t; he just owned them.)
* Several Hispanics who wanted to know if there were any immigrants at the Convention? (Eight.)
Some questions reflected impressive knowledge. A man wanted to know why George Mason has never been honored for proposing the Bill of Rights? (Probably because Washington resented Mason’s opposition to the Constitution.) A woman wondered how much impact the Scottish Enlightenment had on the Framers? (I punted; above my pay grade.) Or why did Virginia produce so many leaders while next-door Maryland produced so few? (Hmmm….I struggled with that one.) Two television viewers pounced on my misstatement that Alexander Hamilton, as an immigrant, could not have run for president; in truth, anyone can be president who either is native-born (not Hamilton), or was an American citizen at the time the Constitution was ratified (Hamilton was). Then there was the e-mail from a woman who is writing a libretto for an opera on Hamilton’s life.
A few questions, unsurprisingly, defied coherent response. What would the Framers think of the way that communists control our media? Did they oppose the conspiracy against the Federal Reserve Bank? Almost as puzzling were the two people who called in questions from Quebec. Don’t they have their own constitution?
From the poignant to the trenchant to the wacky, the curiosity never let up. Usually I had to cut off the question period before answering all the questions, but many people pursued me — in person and on-line — to continue the conversation. For me, that was the best news from the book tour.
Studying the Convention taught me two lessons above all others. First, that being an American means not getting everything you want. Most of the delegates hated some significant part of the Constitution, but they signed it because — as Ben Franklin said — it was less important that any particular provision be in the Constitution that there be one at all. Second, the Framers understood, as George Mason put it, that their creation would be “defective.” They knew it would have to be changed by later generations, and so it has been, 27 times. I am content to confide that responsibility to those with whom I talked about the Constitution in the Spring of 2007.