Op Ed: The continuing relevance of the U.S. Constitution in American politics

December 24, 2020

This op ed. originally appeared in the Daily Press on August 17.

In the hurly-burly of a presidential campaign, it is easy to forget what a privilege it is to select the occupant of the most powerful office in the world. This is possible only because our forebears had “the wisdom to discern and the virtue to pursue” the great object of establishing a republican form of government. Whatever the merits of the contenders Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, their goals should be viewed in the larger perspective that America’s unique constitutionalism affords.

It is 83 days until November 8th, election day, during which issues of a momentous and, alas, trivial, nature will continue to be debated (?), only five days less than it took the framers of the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia to propose a national government. Of course, there is no comparison between 55 men who, because of their agreement on first principles, were able to unite on some points and compromise on others, producing a supreme law 229 years ago, and our present disagreement on those very principles.

Many of our citizens, especially when the Tea Party was formed for the 2010 elections, have eagerly turned to the study of the primary documents of our founding, especially the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and The Federalist Papers.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a presentation on the Constitutional Convention at Azusa Pacific University, sponsored by the Ashbrook Institute of American history and government at Ashland University in Ohio. Even though I taught American government (and, unavoidably, American history) for many years, I looked forward to attending, not least because the presenter was Prof. Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University, a classmate at Claremont Graduate School 46 years ago.

The audiences for presentations of this sort all over the country are primarily middle and secondary school teachers of American history, of which there were 35 in attendance. Prof. Lloyd has drawn upon three resources: 1) visual (paintings of the framers), 2) imaginative (maps of their dwellings), and 3) textual (notes of the debates) to stir curiosity, wonder and study or, as Prof. Lloyd put it, “Fifty ways to love the framers.”

Paintings of the constitutional framers actually did not appear until the 20th century, one depicting them presenting the completed document of seven articles to George Washington and another of them standing outdoors looking like demigods. An interactive map revealed their lodgings and meeting places, official and unofficial, where momentous decisions were made or prefigured.

Lloyd has published a remarkable text in which James Madison’s account, painstakingly made each evening following the five-to-six hour meetings, is rendered in very accessible form, concluding with an imaginative feat of his own: A four-act play to dramatize the event.

Why a play? Like many scholars before him, Lloyd argues that the formation of a republic (that radically departed from the existing confederation) was a unique event in human history, shedding not a single drop of blood. But more than this, he compares the convention to a dialogue of Plato or a play by Shakespeare. Despite great differences in character and form, they have in common a controlled movement toward resolution of fundamental issues.

In its decision to meet entirely in secret, the Constitutional Convention left members free to debate momentous (and not-so-momentous) issues without the glare of publicity but also to change their minds on the merits. The founding of a great republic had been done previously only in theory (Plato) or in poetry (Shakespeare).

While the debate and Great Compromise on House and Senate representation are far better known, Lloyd made a case also for the debate over the importation-of-slaves clause. When the final draft was being considered, the South Carolina delegation made it clear that it would accept no limitation whatsoever.

Several northern delegates, joined by James Madison of Virginia, denounced the trade as immoral and barbaric. Madison, in fact, proposed that the trade end in 1800, signaling a new age and the ultimate extinction of slavery altogether. Rather than digging in their heels, the South Carolina delegation proposed 1808 for the cutoff, to which the drafting committee readily agreed.

But, as Lloyd, observed, “20 years can bring a lot of mischief.” Historians have noted that more slaves were imported during that period than all the years of slavery before — a “going out of business sale.”

All delegates knew that, no less than Independence, the Constitution required broad consensus or all hopes of dealing with our problems, slavery included, would be lost.

It is a lesson also to us that problems may fester for years without a solution, owing to the limits of human nature and the requirement of popular consent. But as long as the Constitution remains in force, we need not abandon hope.

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow Community College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause” (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net