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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : Celebrating the Nation's Charter as Problem and Solution

September 13, 1987|DAVID LAUTER | Times Staff Writer

The traveler wandered the rutted roads from New England south to the Carolinas and rode the mule-drawn canal barges west through the mountains toward the Mississippi, all the while taking notes on the strange young country spread out before him.

When he returned to France, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, "I have never been more struck by the good sense and the practical judgment of the Americans than in the manner in which they elude the numberless difficulties resulting from their federal Constitution."

A century-and-a-half later, the nation de Tocqueville viewed in adolescence has grown to adulthood. The Constitution, signed by its framers in Philadelphia on Sept. 17, 1787, is now the oldest written national charter of government in effect anywhere in the world. And Americans are still demonstrating a pragmatic genius for overcoming what de Tocqueville took to be the Constitution's "numberless difficulties."

Americans themselves complain ceaselessly about the inefficiencies and frustrations it entails, from the Fifth Amendment's protection of criminals to the seemingly archaic checks and balances that almost paralyze modern government. Critics of the Constitution yearn for the more streamlined decision making of parliamentary systems in which prime ministers have extraordinary freedom of action and are quickly replaced if they lose popular support.

Why, then, with all the manifest burdens it imposes, has the Constitution been so widely admired and so little changed in 200 years? Why did British Prime Minister William Gladstone declare, in 1878, that "the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man"?

The answer appears to be that the mechanisms designed by the Founding Fathers, while maddeningly slow and cumbersome, have proven remarkably effective at enabling the people of a huge and heterogeneous nation to preserve the pattern of "conflict within consen-

sus" that historians identify as the

unique feature of America's


With one terrible exception, the Civil War, the constitutional process has enabled Americans to pass through periods of profound change, to disagree, struggle ferociously and sometimes violently over policies, yet ultimately reach decisions that most can support and almost all accept--without plunging into the abyss of fanaticism that has torn and destroyed so many societies.

'Intense Disagreements'

A constitution should "allow very intense disagreements to be handled without violence and without loss of legitimacy" of the nation's institutions, said UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger. By that measure, the Constitution has been a resounding success.

Unlike Marx and other more theoretical political thinkers, the framers of the Constitution started with human nature, which they saw as severely flawed and limited, then tried to design a government that would guarantee "the blessings of liberty" to the maximum extent possible within those limitations. After all, Madison wrote in the Federalist papers, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Reinforcing such pragmatism, a tradition of almost-religious veneration has grown up around the Constitution. One 19th-Century President called it the "ark of the people's covenant" and said it must be "shield(ed) . . . from impious hands." Advocates of sundry causes claim the Constitution's support, and tourists line up in droves to see its first and last pages encased in bulletproof glass at the National Archives.

The American lexicon contains few political epithets more powerful than "unconstitutional."

Bending the System

To be sure, this veneration has not eliminated the frustrations inherent in the system. Nor has it always been strong enough to prevent abuses of the rights and values embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In race relations particularly, as well as in periods of national crisis and in circumstances when public passions ran out of control, events have occurred that dishonored the Constitution's high ideals.

The importance of those ideals has become so ingrained in the nation's consciousness, however, that the system has shown a remarkable tendency to right itself and return to its intended course.

"Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, yet they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally and recall the people," Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1802, "they fix too for the people the principles of their political creed."

Within the framework of the Constitution, strong national leaders have tried to bend the system to their will--including Jefferson himself, who entered the White House with a restrictive view of presidential power but pushed his authority to the limit when the opportunity arose in 1803 to make the Louisiana Purchase and double the size of the nation.

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