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'A History and Civics Lesson for Everyone' : Bicentennial Fete of Constitution Taking Shape

February 23, 1987|PENNY PAGANO | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — A silver inkstand and a chair carved with a rising sun are the only original pieces left in the assembly room at Philadelphia's Independence Hall, where representatives of the 13 colonies met to debate, deliberate on and finally deliver to an embryonic nation the four-page parchment document that would become the Constitution of the United States.

Now, 200 years after the signing of the Constitution, the country is launching a coast-to-coast celebration.

It will bring the entire U.S. Congress to Philadelphia for a one-day session in a specially constructed space-age pavilion. It will include a television special by the producers of the Statue of Liberty Weekend ceremonies and flood the country with approved souvenirs varying from tote bags to California wines with special labels.

Framework of Democracy

Planners hope the pomp will not overshadow the opportunity to re-examine the document that has laid a framework of democratic government for countries around the world.

"This is an occasion for a history and civics lesson for everyone," says former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution.

The celebration has been in the works, both nationally and locally in Philadelphia, for more than two years. The national commission, which Burger agreed to direct upon his retirement from the court last year, has received $25.2 million from Congress to sponsor and coordinate activities.

However, compared to the nation's Bicentennial and the Statue of Liberty, which were celebrated in highly successful national galas in 1976 and 1986, the Constitution may not be as natural a centerpiece for a party.

Constitution's Purpose

According to a recent poll conducted for the Hearst Corp., more than a fourth of Americans think the Constitution's purpose was to declare independence from England. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed did not know the Bill of Rights was the charter's first 10 amendments.

"We have taken it for granted," Burger lamented. " . . . It's not as easy to focus on."

By year's end, he hopes that will have changed.

"We want to put the emphasis on the history--how difficult it was, how we almost didn't get the Constitution," he said recently.

When the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May of 1787, the survival of the nation was at stake.

Economy in Depression

Under the Articles of Confederation passed 10 years earlier, the economy had fallen into depression, currency was unstable and the massive debt left from the War of Independence was unpaid. A weak central government, with no independent executive or power to tax, was unable to make effective treaties with other countries or regulate trade between the states, which acted virtually as autonomous nations.

With many representatives wary of any hint of tyranny, it was uncertain whether any agreement on a workable system could be reached, or whether the states should just go their separate ways. But over the next four months, the delegates, meeting in secret sessions and pitting heatedly the rights of states against the need for centralized power, hammered out a compromise that established the three branches of government and framed a system flexible enough to withstand 200 years of dynamic change.

The big breakthrough came on July 16, 1787, when the "Great Compromise" established Congress as we know it today: a lower house whose representation is based on population, and an upper house with two delegates from each state.

'We the People . . . '

Two months later, on Sept. 17, 39 of the delegates signed the four-page document, opening with the now famous preamble, "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union. . . ." Then they returned home to tell the people what they had done.

It was, in the words of New York Rep. Sol Bloom, who chaired the sesquicentennial observance, "one of the greatest sessions of the wise men in the history of the world."

Although there have been two previous constitutional celebrations, in 1887 and 1937, this year's tribute to the feat is designed to be the most elaborate and lavish of all.

No medium or method will be overlooked. Kitsch will commingle with historical scholarship.

For starters, to better acquaint people with the honoree, 100 million copies of the Constitution will be distributed by corporations nationwide--equivalent to 30 copies for each of the 3.9 million people in the nation when it was signed.

Historical Lectures

Hundreds of lectures, symposiums and study groups will be held in cities to review the history of the Constitution and analyze its articles. AT&T will offer recorded historical messages on a toll free telephone number, 1-800-3-B-PROUD, and Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot is expected to display the 1297 copy of the Magna Charta, the English document that set the precedent for civil and political liberties. Perot purchased it for $1.5 million in England two years ago.

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