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GOVERNMENT : By Parties, on Paper, by Decision : A Constitution Lives Within the Virtues of Its Limitations

May 25, 1986|Robert Dawidoff | Robert Dawidoff teaches history at the Claremont Graduate School.

The Constitution is like an old machine, one that requires more ingenuity than we can always muster to keep it working right, one with creaks and groans and expense multiplying with age into a pretty constant roar. You have to ask sometimes whether the Constitution is worth the upkeep and whether a new machine might not be a prudent investment.

My sense is that there is something seemly and beautiful in the workings of the old Constitution, something of an argument for it in its very longevity. But the difference between sense and the merely nostalgic or the reactionary is a critical one. A sensible citizen believes that knowledge is power and offers reasons for his beliefs. If something new does a better job or looks better than something old, put the old in a museum and use the new. But I think the Constitution works very well . . . as well as governments ever work.

Although every effort must be made to render government more effective, human government is, in the nature of things, somewhat haphazard in what it can achieve. It is a good thing to take care of yourself, as if there was a complete correlation between good care and long life. But there is only a limited correlation, so much in this life having to do with the things that you can't foresee, let alone guard against. The human condition is what governments, like people, struggle to contend with. Like the Founders, I believe in both human effort and the human condition.

The Constitution strikes me as deep because it promotes national energy without depending on an unrealistic view of human nature--or the human condition. At any moment in national life the Constitution encourages improvement and at the same time discourages too many sacrifices of basic goods--like liberty--in the name of the most pressing emergencies.

If the Declaration of Independence, what Robert Frost called that hard mystery of Jefferson's, keeps us on our toes, looking toward the future, giving national life an ideal, the Constitution puts the brake on our reaching. Although in some circumstances a doctrine of national unity, the Constitution is grounded in contrary effects, offering an instant critique of any moment.

The Constitution is at its most characteristic when some present course of action is slowed and stymied, compromised and even ruined. If the Declaration is the child in the body politic, the Constitution was born prematurely gray with age. Its secret motto concerns the best-laid plans . . . . It was written in the cynical conviction that power corrupts and that the best way to limit the inevitable corruption was to confuse, that is divide, the power.

The greatest calls for national unity, in war and peace, have tended to be un- or extra-constitutional. The document itself invokes no emotion, just process. The Constitution has been used by those who have wanted to change it, and each generation has taken sides over its contrary tendencies, sides that have always defined and usually safely divided American politics. Our history records the political life that Americans have given the Constitution's bare bones.

Who would have thought that the very issues our Founders decided the Constitution might be a buffer against--issues of world empire and religion and private morality, issues that they figured had ruined every body politic--would now be constitutional arguments before all three branches of our government?

The Founders did know very well that the division of power would lead to stalemate and quarrel. They were all experienced political men whose desire for a national energy was not freed from a genuine worry about that same energy. The political passions and interests of the moment, whoever represents them and whatever they might be, are what the Constitution seeks not to deny but to delay. In what the Founders set up, national energy is always exposed to a series of institutional checks and balances--to roadblocks, often procedural, often personal, often corrupt, often stupid.

The Founders did not regard the prospect of national life as very likely to improve human nature, let alone to redeem it. So they trusted liberty and union to a kind of orderly confusion, about as like life as a clock is like the experience of time that it measures; and as realistic a system of living it as living according to kept time generally is.

One cannot always admire the way this works, but it does seem suited to the modern world where the random seems to play so frighteningly large a part and where compromise seems both more fleeting and necessary than ever.

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