Letter to the Editor: the past is the key to our future
There is no better way to examine the pitfalls and hazards of a constitutional convention than to review the proceedings of the convention of 1787, which produced the present Constitution in Miracle at Philadelphia (first published in 1966), Catherine Drinker Bowen did a masterful job of bringing the potentially dry, detailed proceedings of the convention to life. Interspersed among the details of proposals, counterproposals, and compromises that forged the blueprint for the world's finest constitutional republic are the living details of the lives, personalities, prejudices, foibles, and fears of the convention delegates.
She paints a picture of life in early America, a transition from colonialism to a new free republic, which sets the context and describes the publicly held attitudes that shaped the Constitution. Regionalism was dominant; a citizen of that era was decidedly more likely to attach his patriotism to his state than to the nation as a whole. The convention delegates grappled with these divisive attitudes in crafting a document that was ultimately accepted, if not heartily endorsed, by the American people who ratified it.
Bowen describes the reasons for having three departments of the federal government - a single chief executive, a bicameral Congress composed of popularly elected and apportioned representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation of the states in the Senate, and a judiciary. She describes the wisdom of having Senators appointed by the legislatures of the States (changed to direct election by the 17th Amendment). The great debate over the need for a Bill of Rights (Amendments I through X) is a major focus of the book.
Bowen credits Washington with coining the phrase which became the title of her book. What was the miracle that took place at Philadelphia? It is the fact that a collection of delegates from such varied backgrounds, cultures and beliefs were able to complete their work and create the Constitution. The great fear was that the convention would dissolve and adjourn without producing a new form of government.
Miracle at Philadelphia is a must-read for at least two reasons. It is informative about the most critical, fragile period of American history-would we or would we not become one nation? It also creates an awareness of the dangers inherent in holding a constitutional convention. Throughout the life of the republic, national movements have arisen and subsided seeking to hold another constitutional convention under the provisions of Article V. These movements have erroneously supposed that the legislatures of the states can petition Congress to call a limited, single-issue convention. Legal scholars-federal judges and law school professors-have warned that a limited, single-issue convention cannot be mandated. Once a convention meets, it can propose whatever amendments it likes, without limitation. This is the great danger of any constitutional convention.
During the Philadelphia convention, some delegates urged that the proposed new document be submitted to the states for their analysis and that a second convention be held to revise the first document based on the reaction from the states. Madison was fearful of a second convention. He knew that another convention had as much authority to undo all of the work of the first convention as it had to propose the changes suggested by the states. That risk is as great today as it was at the beginning of the republic. A convention held today would be subject to pressures from a plethora of special interest groups to have their own pet provisions inserted. In addition to insider pressure for an UN-friendly amendment would be pressures for a "gay" rights amendment, an animal rights amendment, a forest protection amendment and a welfare rights amendment.
The list is endless. Understanding our past is key to planning our future.