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Tall Tales

A COUNTRY WITH NO NAME: Tales From the Constitution. By Sebastian De Grazia . Pantheon: 432 pp., $27.50

March 23, 1997|DERRICK BELL | Derrick Bell is the author of "Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism" (BasicBooks)

Most Americans hold fast to their view that the heroes of our history--particularly the country's Revolutionary War leaders--were paragons of patriotic virtue. Like children feigning belief in Santa Claus long after they suspect the truth, Americans would rather accept than question their heroic stature.

We treat the Constitution as similarly beyond challenge. It is our civic bible. Like the Good Book, it is more respected than read and, more often than not, misinterpreted. Efforts to surmount these barriers of self-inflicted ignorance seldom make a dent. In this area, as in so much of our public life, Americans prefer comforting fantasy to disquieting facts.

In "A Country With No Name," Sebastian De Grazia, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Machiavelli, challenges the orthodox history with some rather bitter truths that he attempts to sugarcoat with a contemporary romance. His plan: Construct a series of fictional tales about major legal decisions and well-known figures in American constitutional history and have them told by a fictional character, Claire St. John, a knowledgeable young Englishwoman.

St. John, an attractive graduate student in early American history, has been hired to tutor a 19-year-old boy, Oliver Huggins, who has traveled widely with his highly placed father and is now preparing for college. The tutoring sessions are conducted in Huggins' otherwise empty home.

St. John arrives for their first session and formally announces that she is Huggins' "teller of tales." There are, she tells him, to be 12 daily lectures, delivered as tales, because, she reports, "My view of history is that it consists of tales." St. John, a learned Scheherazade, shows up each day and discusses the roles George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, John Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Thoreau and several others played in the development of our Constitution, its amendments and interpretations. Her lectures offer a rather more critical view of the men, who most Americans believe lived lives of selfless patriotic perfection.

The book's recurring theme--the basis for its title--contends that for much of its early history, this country had no official name, a shortcoming that De Grazia deems a "curious and important deficiency." At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the victorious colonies considered themselves independent countries. Under the "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union"--De Grazia refers to it as the First Constitution--the colonies became states with little apparent loss of their autonomy. Each had definable borders, a constitution and a name.

When the framers recognized that the government under the Articles of Confederacy was not working, they secretly drafted a replacement, the Constitution of 1787. In doing so, they were careful not to disturb the states' sense of independence any more than was necessary, yet still they wanted to create a federal government strong enough to protect their economic and political interests. During the nation's early years, names for the country like Columbia (for Columbus) and Yankees (from the tune "Yankee Doodle") were bandied about. None stuck. Rather than denote a country, for a long period, the United States of America described a place.

Citizens identified with a state rather than with the country, a fact that detracted from a sense of unity that, according to De Grazia, might have prevented the Civil War. At the least, it might have denied the South the war's greatest general. When, at the outset of hostilities, Lincoln asked Robert E. Lee to head the Union forces, Lee replied: "I'm sorry, sir. I cannot fight against Virginia."

George Washington is described in the tales as wealthy, well-known and able to command a respect that gave legitimacy to the framers' draft of a new Constitution. He also gave stability to the nation when he agreed to serve two terms as the first president.

Washington had been a strict disciplinarian, ordering swift punishment by flogging for minor offenses and even swifter executions for volunteers who threatened not to march until they were paid. As De Grazia describes Washington: "His traits of stiffness or gravity and of pleasure in dress and pomp lent solemnity to any meeting and later, as some say, helped hedge the presidency with majesty."

De Grazia's book presents Chief Justice John Marshall, the most revered of American jurists, a "legal razzle-dazzle" artist who used his considerable argumentative powers to find in the Constitution authority for the Supreme Court that the framers probably never intended and, if intended, they most assuredly did not set out to establish in our civic bible.

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