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.