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Tracing charter's influence on US politics and culture

A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture, by Michael Kammen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 532 pp. $29.95 Over the next few years, we can expect an effusion of books about the Constitution and the constitutional era as Americans mark the 200th anniversaries of the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, its ratification by the several states, and George Washington's inauguration as the nation's first president in 1789. It is fitting that Michael Kammen's offering appears at the outset of the planning season for the bicentennial observances, for the book serves, as well as any imaginable, as a kind of keynote address.

This is not a book about constitutional doctrine; the words of the Constitution itself hardly appear. Nor does Kammen, a professor of American history and culture at Cornell University, laboriously parse Supreme Court decisions or scholarly tracts to discover what the charter means.

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Rather, this is a lucid and engaging history of American constitutionalism. Kammen borrows from an earlier writer a definition for the word: It is, he says, ``the name given to the trust which men repose in the power of words engrossed on parchment to keep a government in order.'' Sardonic, as Kammen concedes, but insightful.

Constitutionalism, in Kammen's usage, is the sum of public attitudes, not just toward constitutional principles, but also toward the document -- the ``parchment'' -- in which the principles are set forth. In the case of the US Constitution, these attitudes have conferred on the parchment a symbolic, even mystical, property that has been important -- in both positive and negative ways, Kammen thinks -- in the evolution of American political culture.

On the one hand, public respect for the document, a respect that at times has verged on reverence, unquestionably has been a unifying force in America. Obviously, devotion to the Constitution failed to unify Americans in 1861-65, but this is the exception that proves the generalization. The rebellion, in Southern eyes, was not a revolt against the Constitution, but against what was deemed an erroneous interpretation of the states' prerogatives under that charter. Respect for the Constitution in the South survived the Civil War, and perhaps contributed to the healing process in the following decades.

At the same time, though, Kammen asserts -- and rather persuasively documents -- that public adoration of the Constitution too often has been substituted for understanding. Through polls, surveys, excerpts from school primers and other popular texts, responses on tests administered to immigrants applying for citizenship, even analysis of town and street names (Kammen is a prodigious, one is tempted to say ``obsessed,'' researcher), he demonstrates that the general public has been satisfied to venerate the Constitution while remaining blithely ignorant of its contents.

Kammen deplores this national shortcoming, which he attributes in large measure to the failure of the schools, the media, and our political and judicial leaders to educate the citizenry about the Constitution. To the extent this book has a hortatory dimension, it is in the author's implicit plea for better public teaching about the charter.

Yet every so-called constitutional crisis -- from the decades-long controversy over slavery and states' rights that culminated in the Civil War, to Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing plan, to Watergate -- has been accompanied not by ignorance or apathy among the leadership class, but rather by intelligent and informed argument on both sides of the issues. This continues to be true in the constitutional arguments that absorb our times. One can passionately disagree with some of the positions advocated today on questions of church and state, judicial review, divining the framers' intent, and the reach of the due process and equal protection clauses; but it cannot be fairly denied that many of these positions have plausible grounding in the language and history of the Constitution.

Kammen's important contribution is to show how well the Constitution has served the US for more than two centuries. There is plenty of room for argument over the reasons why the words engrossed on the framers' parchment have kept the American government in order. But Americans have, by and large, successfully met Benjamin Franklin's challenge to keep the republic that they were bequeathed.

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This is not a deeply analytical book -- keynoters usually leave the burrowing to those who come after. And the book is overly windy -- as keynote addresses often are. But this book does well the things that keynote presentations are supposed to do. It puts the Constitution into its historical and cultural context, asks the important questions, and introduces the themes around which a national discussion can be fruitfully structured.

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