Dear Presidential Candidate,
I watched the Republican debate earlier this month. Their rhetoric (like that of other parties) often riffs on the claim, “I believe in the Constitution.” What that actually means is somewhat harder to express in a soundbite. As with all historical texts, our understanding of what it means is not as straightforward as we might like to think—it is based on conjecture of authorial intent, interpretation of judicial precedent, and appeals to implicit ideals. This is not to say that we should ignore the actual text of Constitution, but I think recognizing the complexity of constitutional law can help us tolerate and even collaborate with those who interpret it differently.
I assume, Dear Presidential Candidate, that you will continue to espouse a firm belief in the Constitution. As you do, consider this: If you truly believe in the Constitution as much as you claim, please heed not only the text itself, but the manner in which that text was written. The Constitutional Convention was not a collection of likeminded politicians, gathered to enshrine their beliefs—the equivalent of an 18th Century party convention. It was a convergence of diverse representatives who came together to solve a problem. They had vast differences in opinion, so the discussions were many and vigorous. However, they often ended in compromise, the most famous of which may be the decision to create a bicameral legislature with two different approaches to state representation (proportional and equal). Note that this result was something neither side of the debate initially wanted. The compromise was not a quid pro quo exchange with the federalists getting four of their demands and the anti-federalists getting four of theirs, instead it resulted in something new, and arguably superior to any of the initial proposals.
So, Dear Presidential Candidate, if you want my vote, you must show me that you are the kind of person who could participate in the Great Compromise of our day. Feel free to continue “Constitution thumping” as you campaign for office, but taking an intractable, hardliner stance only convinces me that you are no Roger Sherman. And I certainly haven’t been convinced that you’re a James Madison either.
Like you, I believe in the Constitution. But I also believe the Constitutional Convention.
One thought on “Dear Presidential Candidate – I believe in the Constitutional Convention”
Nicely expressed. The story of the creation of the U.S. Constitution (which I’ve read and seen in various forms) is powerful and inspiring, among other things because of the way a group of brilliant but often stubborn and contentious individuals with widely differing views were able to come together and create a remarkable document. The Constitution they created wasn’t perfect (for instance, in its accommodation of slavery), but it’s hard to imagine how something better could have been created given the circumstances. And it allows for amendment, which makes it by nature a document capable of transformation–not to mention one necessarily subject to interpretation, as you mention.
Since any constitution is or should be the framework for a community, I believe there are dangers in using the document (or the word “Constitution”) as a weapon to attack other members of the community, among other things, for how they interpret the constitution. Everyone in the community obviously has a stake in the document that provides a framework for how that community is constituted. Ideally, therefore, we ought to discuss the document in a way that respects the needs and views of all in the community and in a way that aims for consensus. (The words “ideally” and “ought” suggest that we may need to keep reminding ourselves and making an effort to aim for the ideal. But of course disagreement is inevitable, as it was for the members of the Constitutional Convention itself.)