CORVALLIS, ORE. — We are being urged to celebrate our Constitution's 200th anniversary. I see nothing at all to celebrate. Rather, let us save our platitudes, our gleaming tautologies for 1991, when the Bill of Rights will have its bicentennial. Those 10 amendments are forever worthy of celebration as opposed to the peculiar and dismal document to which they were so sublimely attached. Although I am not entirely persuaded that a written constitution is a good idea, I am entirely opposed to the current bit of patchwork that provides us with so much injustice and civic corruption at home and mindless imperial aggression abroad.
Lately, the residents of the White House have taken to chattering about "the jurisprudence of original intent." Apparently, nothing that was not intended by the original inventors of the Constitution should ever become law. This is gorgeous nonsense since no one knows what, precisely, any of those 55 well-to-do white men originally intended. All that we do know is that they cobbled together a federal system that none regarded as sacred or, in some cases, even much good. Thomas Jefferson was safely out of the country when the essentially Tory Constitution was hammered out. He was so little enthusiastic with the result that he proposed a new convention every generation on the ground that, "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy, as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." Poor Jefferson was a spiritual Darwinian. Little did he foresee that 200 years later we, his heirs, would be the barbarians and he a sad civilized unheeded voice from the past, while a barbarous stone effigy of him defaces what was once a decent Dakota mountainside. The only thing he got straight was that each generation would need to alter its institutions, while guarding its "inalienable" rights. Two centuries later, we maintain reverently our rotted institutions while addressing ourselves with ever greater ingenuity to the destruction of the Bill of Rights.
As I come not from law or academe, I feel obliged to make one reference to a predecessor in my field, as they say. Sixty years ago an American novelist wrote, "There is nothing like a Revolution for making people conservative; that is one of the reasons why, for instance, our Constitution, the child of Revolution is the most conservative in history." This is somewhat hyperbolic--ours was not much of a revolution and Athens' constitution, as described by Aristotle, is more conservative than ours--even so, Edith Wharton got it about right.
What to do? I am one of the few people outside of an institution who would like to see a new constitutional convention. To date, 32 state legislatures have voted in favor of such a convention. When another two states vote in favor, such a convention will be unavoidable. It is a nice irony that the far-right--disguised as conservatives--can take credit for so fundamental and radical an upheaval. In order to balance by law the budget, to put prayer to God and Mammon in the schools, to forbid abortion, pornography and drugs, each itemized in a Bill of Wrongs, they have set in motion the great engine that will overthrow the very Constitution which they insist be so strictly constructed, as originally intended by men they know nothing at all about in the light of world history of which they are so proudly ignorant. But then if you want fundamental and astounding change in the United States, look to those who call themselves conservative. If you want to keep the status quo as inviolate as, let us say, academic tenure, look to the liberals. As I am neither liberal nor conservative, I can view with a certain serenity the restructuring of our political institutions.
The first objection to a new convention is the how of it. Where will it convene and under what auspices? Who will be eligible to attend? Can it be restricted to a single issue like a balanced budget? If not, and the whole Constitution is rewritten, will the resulting arrangements be reviewable by the courts that now sit, or will those courts cease to exist if they have been restructured, too, and shorn, perhaps, of judicial review? A British historian once observed that nothing so puts the roses in the cheeks of an American as the possibility of constitutional change. Currently, the House Judiciary Committee is trying to derail the movement. After all, such a convention could--and probably would--supersede Congress. On the other hand, the American Bar Assn. sees no legal or, ironically, constitutional objection to such a convention. As for public opinion, there is none worth recording yet. There never is until the 30-second spots begin to show up on television.