Point of View

The Constitution gets its due

January 5, 2011 

A new Congress convenes today, and recent news reports indicate that there are plans to put the Constitution front and center as the nation's lawmakers prepare to address the country's mounting problems. Indeed, the House is planning what is believed to be the first reading of the Constitution ever undertaken on the floor of that body.

While that rendition is unlikely to rival either the artistic interpretation of Jimmy Stewart who read from both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in his famous filibuster in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," nor its real-life use by Louisiana Sen. Huey Long during the Great Depression, it should nevertheless help foster an ever greater awareness of that document's central role in our system of government.

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once famously opined that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Indeed, while the Declaration's "all men are created equal" can send chills down the spine of even the most cynical, the Constitution's "we the people" serves as a stark reminder of the tremendous challenge inherent in governing a nation that is now home to more than 300 million people. And of course that same document protects the right of each and every one of those 300 million to express their thoughts about that government and pretty much everything else.

But of course that is the point - and the genius. If it were easy, everyone would have done it. Indeed, given the almost 225 years that have elapsed since the adoption and ratification of the Constitution, not to mention the unparalleled success that the United States has experienced operating under this 18th century blueprint, we tend to forget how fractious the process was and how hard fought were the battles that preceded both the drafting of the Constitution and its subsequent ratification. But they were in fact fierce, and the modern debates about the meaning of the Constitution are in fact little more than a continuation of the dialogue that marked the nation's founding.

There is an old truism that history is written by the winners, and in U.S. history there is no event that typifies that more clearly than the battle over ratification of the Constitution. Desperate to see their work at the Philadelphia Convention vindicated, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, aided by John Jay, wrote a series of articles that, while offering an incredibly thoughtful, insightful and often elegant explanation of the new government created by the Constitution, were essentially political ads aimed at securing the necessary ratification by New York and Virginia.

When that end was achieved, the papers, brought together as The Federalist Papers, assumed an iconic authority, leaving many to forget how tenuous were those victories, and how insightful and thoughtful, if ultimately less successful, were the arguments of their opponents. Indeed, while ratification might have been achieved, a consensus on the meaning of the founding blueprint was nowhere to be found.

Although now almost forgotten, the anti-federalists gave as good as they got. In fact, nowhere were they more effective and persuasive than here in North Carolina, where opponents forced a second state convention, finally approving the Constitution in November 1789 as Congress began taking up the amendments that became the Bill of Rights and that addressed their concerns.

In many respects, it is very fitting that in the first Congress in over 50 years to convene without Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the acknowledged guardian of the Constitution and sponsor of the legislation that established Sept. 17 as Constitution Day, the whole of Congress is taking it upon itself to be sure that the document's values, its dictates, its guideposts and its ambiguities are reviewed, respected and wrestled with.

Indeed, the recent decision by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to increase the U.S. history requirement in the public schools was a bow, however unconscious, to the importance of studying and understanding the issues at the heart of the effort begun by Madison and Hamilton and their ideological counterparts so many years ago. In the end, it is their efforts that serve as the foundation upon which we stand - and the ongoing attention and discussion which surround it can, in the end, only serve to benefit "we the people."

William H. Pruden III is head of the Upper School at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service