3/29/11 - our beloved constitution

In today's excerpt - from the very first days of its publication, the United States Constitution has been criticized by many as difficult to understand and interpret. And the physical document itself suffered decades of neglect before it was finally enshrined:

"Three delegates refused to sign [the constitution upon its approval by the Constitutional Convention], but at the bottom of the fourth page appear the signatures of the rest. What was written on parchment was then made public, printed in newspapers and broadsheets, often with 'We the People' set off in extra-large type. Meanwhile, the secretary of the convention carried the original [from Philadelphia] to New York to present it to [the Continental] Congress, which met, at the time, at City Hall. Without either endorsing or opposing it, Congress agreed to forward the Constitution to the states for ratification. The original Constitution was simply filed away and, later, shuffled from one place to another. When City Hall underwent renovations, the Constitution was transferred to the Department of State. The following year, it moved with Congress to Philadelphia and, in 1800, to Washington, where it was stored at the Treasury Department until it was shifted to the War Office. In 1814, three clerks stuffed it into a linen sack and carried it to a gristmill in Virginia, which was fortunate, because the British burned Washington down. In the eighteen-twenties, when someone asked James Madison where it was, he had no idea.

"In 1875, the Constitution found a home in a tin box in the bottom of a closet in a new building that housed the Departments of State, War, and Navy. In 1894, it was sealed between glass plates and locked in a safe in the basement. In 1921, Herbert Putnam, a librarian, drove it across town in his Model T. In 1924, it was put on display in the Library of Congress, for the first time ever. Before then, no one had thought of that. It spent the Second World War at Fort Knox. In 1952, it was driven in an armored tank under military guard to the National Archives, where it remains, in a shrine in the rotunda, alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. ...

"If you haven't read the Constitution lately, do. Chances are you'll find that it doesn't exactly explain itself. Consider Article III, Section 3: 'The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.' This is simply put—hats off to the committee of style—but what does it mean? A legal education helps. Lawyers won't stumble over 'attainder,' even if the rest of us will. Part of the problem might appear to be the distance between our locution and theirs. 'Corruption of Blood'? The document's learnedness and the changing meaning of words isn't the whole problem, though, because the charge that the Constitution is too difficult for ordinary people to understand—not because of its vocabulary but because of the complexity of its ideas—was brought nearly the minute it was made public.

"Anti-Federalists charged that the Constitution was so difficult to read that it amounted to a conspiracy against the understanding of a plain man, that it was willfully incomprehensible. 'The constitution of a wise and free people, ought to be as evident to simple reason, as the letters of our alphabet,' an Anti-Federalist wrote. 'A constiution ought to be, like a beacon, held up to the public eye, so as to be understood by every man,' Patrick Henry argued. He believed that what was drafted in Philadelphia was 'of such an intricate and complicated nature, that no man on this earth can know its real operation.' Anti-Federalists had more complaints, too, which is why ratification—a process wonderfully recounted by Pauline Maier in 'Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788'—was touch and go. Rhode Island, the only state to hold a popular referendum on the Constitution, rejected it. Elsewhere, in state ratifying conventions, the Constitution passed by the narrowest of margins: eighty-nine to seventy-nine in Virginia, thirty to twenty-seven in New York, a hundred and eighty-seven to a hundred and sixty-eight in Massachusetts."...

"[The Constitution has] forty-four hundred words and 'God' is not one of them, as Benjamin Rush complained to John Adams, hoping for an emendation: 'Perhaps an acknowledgement might be made of his goodness or of his providence in the proposed amendments.' It was not."


Jill LePore


"The Commandments"


The New Yorker


January 17, 2011


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