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We Are What We Are From the Constitution

September 13, 1987|Naomi Bliven | Naomi Bliven is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker.

NEW YORK — We're observing the Constitution's 200th birthday this year, although most of us aren't sure exactly where or when to hold the party.

Philadelphia has already given a couple of fetes, one to mark the opening of the Constitutional Convention there (May 25, 1787), and another on the anniversary of the "Grand Compromise" (July 16) when the small states' fears that the large states would dominate the new government were allayed by convention agreement on a bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives to reflect population and a Senate in which each state would count equally. The Philadelphians are planning another party for Thursday, the 17th, the day the Founding Fathers finished their work.

Sept. 17 isn't a definitive anniversary, though. The Constitutional Convention ended one process only to start another. Like a writer who completes the manuscript of his book and sends it to his literary agent (who, the author hopes, will forward it to an editor), the convention submitted the text to critical readers. It sent the Constitution to the Continental Congress, which was in session in New York City. The congress was an assembly of state delegations that had declared independence, managed the Revolutionary War and, in 1787, was all we had in the way of a national government. The congress decided how the country would decide on the Constitution, and its decision gave us 13 separate birthdays to celebrate, for it recommended that each of the 13 states hold an election to choose delegates to a state convention for the specific purpose of voting for or against the Constitution. After nine states ratified, the Constitution would be adopted.

The 13 states followed that procedure, and their 13 elections demonstrated the Early American arts and crafts of wooing and scaring the voters with a skill that we can only admire, not better. As we know, in time all 13 states came in. Delaware, the first, ratified the Constitution on Dec. 7, 1787; Rhode Island, the last, didn't swallow its doubts until May 29, 1790--that anniversary gives us plenty of time to plan a final Bicentennial bash for 1990. In the meantime, we can celebrate more birthdays--the first House of Representatives opened for business on April 1, 1789, in New York City, where George Washington was inaugurated on April 30.

Giving lots of parties at different times and places is the proper--indeed, the obvious--way to commemorate the Constitution, because it is everywhere in this country. I think the Constitution exists within us--within Americans' personalities. For example, we think it perfectly natural for people to vote on whether to change their form of government and to vote to choose their government's officers.

In 1787, it wasn't natural; the American procedure was unique. A population deciding its future by voting came to seem normal through our example. You might say that the Constitution was born, and still lives, in every polling place in the nation. It wouldn't be a bad idea to serve birthday cake outside every voting booth on Nov. 3, our next Election Day.

Our politics have never questioned the importance of voting; we have prized the vote so greatly that, over 200 years, we have fought some of our fiercest battles about extending the franchise. Our rule of giving voters the last word has survived intellectual fads, among them the notion, much discussed earlier in this century, that experts should make decisions.

The pattern of choosing by voting appears all over our society--outside government as well as in it. Trade associations, trade unions, professional societies, garden clubs--all are ruled by their members' votes. And we start voting early: As schoolchildren, we elect class officers and vote to decide such urgent matters as where to have the class picnic. As Americans we grow up assuming that we have the right to vote on matters that affect us, and we expect explanations from people who seek our votes.

Everyone agrees that the Constitution deliberately diffuses power, that it seeks to prevent the concentration of power in any branch and at any level of government. This goal is sometimes presented as negative or defensive: The Constitution is trying to avert bad things--tyranny, corruption. But there is a positive side to diffusing power: It brings more people into the workings of government. And our nonpolitical organizations, by following the constitutional patterns, also engage more people in group activities. A state bar association or a convention of a state widget-makers' association offers more people opportunities for participation, for sharing in a common effort. By its federal structure, the Constitution has encouraged us to become, like the Founding Fathers themselves, people who get involved.

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