Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Constitution Worship

The Constitution of the United States has been much in the news of late. Members of the Tea Party movement express reverence for the original language and meaning of the document, while others look upon the Constitution as a document intended by the Founders to adapt to meet the changing times. Jill Lepore's article in the January 17 issue of The New Yorker, "The Commandments: The Constitution and Its Worshippers," comes down on the side of those who believe that the Constitution has been and must be subject to interpretation by the courts and by the citizenry:

A great deal of what many Americans hold dear is nowhere written on those four pages of parchment, or in any of the amendments. What has made the Constitution durable is the same as what makes it demanding: the fact that so much was left out. Felix Frankfurther once wrote that the Constitution "is most significantly not a document but a stream of history." The difference between forty-four hundred words and a stream of history goes a long way toward accounting for the panics, every few decades or so, that the Constitution is in crisis, and that America must return to constitutional principles through constitutional education. The two sides in this debate are always charging each other with not knowing the Constitution, but they are talking about different kinds of knowledge.

"We'll keep clinging to our Constitution, our guns, and our religions," [Sarah] Palin said last spring, "and you can keep the change." Behind the word "change" is the word "evolution." In 1913, Woodrow Wilson insisted, "All that progressives ask or desire is permission--in an era when 'development,' 'evolution,' is the scientific word--to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is a recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing." Conservatives called for a rejection of this nonsense about the "living Constitution."

Lepore is a Professor of American History at Harvard, and she treats her readers to a brief but compelling history of the physical Constitution starting with its signing in Philadelpha in 1787. Three delegates would not sign, but the rest did and their signatures appear "at the bottom of the fourth page." The original document was written on parchment, and then the text was "made public, printed in newspapers and broadsheets, often with 'We the People' set off in extra-large type." The original was carried to New York to be presented to Congress, which was meeting at City Hall. Congress forwarded the Constitution to the states for ratification. What happened to the document?
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. ... 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.

It is worth noting that Herbert Putnam was more than just "a librarian"; he was the first individual with professional library experience to serve as Librarian of Congress; he established an interlibrary loan system; and he introduced the Library of Congress classification system, which libraries around the world use to this day. He also served two terms as president of the American Library Association. Putnam was a graduate of Columbia Law School, and what a thrill it must have been for him to have the Constitution in his keeping, if only for a short period of time!

Lepore's article is a fascinating read. I particularly enjoyed the section on originalism which amounts to about half of the article.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you, Marie, for the details you add here, about Mr. Putnam! I enjoyed learning about him - more than a mere librarian indeed! What a wonderful post.