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Jewish World Review August 15, 2005 / 10 Av,
Sense From the Hall of Framers
At the other end of the mall sparkles a modernist jewel of America's civic life, the National Constitution Center, a nongovernment institution that opened July 4, 2003, and already has had more than 2 million visitors. It is built of gray Indiana limestone it is possible, even in Philadelphia, to have a surfeit of red brick and lots of glass. The strikingly different, yet compatible, styles of the 18th-century building where the Constitution was drafted and the 21st-century building where it is explicated and studied in its third century is an architectural bow to the fact that a constitution ratified by a mostly rural nation of 4 million people, most of whom lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater, still suits an urban nation that extends 2,500 miles into the Pacific Ocean.
The center is a marvel of exhibits, many of them interactive. For example, it uses newspapers and film to give immediacy to such episodes as the Supreme Court holding in 1952 that President Truman exceeded his constitutional powers what a thought: there are limits on the commander in chief's powers when he seized the nation's steel mills to prevent a labor dispute from disrupting war production. And it shows President Eisenhower, 13 years after sending paratroopers into Normandy, sending them to Central High School in Little Rock.
Throughout, the center illustrates what professor Felix Frankfurter before he became Justice Frankfurter was trying to express more than 70 years ago when he said, "If the Thames is 'liquid history,' the Constitution of the United States is most significantly not a document but a stream of history." But it is, first and always, a document that is to be understood, as the greatest American jurist, John Marshall said, "chiefly from its words."
Those words which, by the way, do not include "federal" or "democracy" comprise a subtle, complicated structure that nourishes various aims and virtues. So it would be wonderful if some of the liberal groups gearing up for a histrionic meltdown over the coming debate about the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts could spend a few hours at the National Constitution Center. Judging by the river of rhetoric that has flowed in response to the court vacancy, contemporary liberalism's narrative of American constitutional history goes something like this:
The exhibits at the National Constitution Center can correct the monomania of some liberals by reminding them that the Constitution expresses the philosophy of natural rights: People have various rights, including and especially the right to property and self-government. These rights are not created by government, which exists to balance and protect the rights in their variety.
And the center can remind conservatives of a fact that is awkward to some of them: The Constitution was written to correct the defects of the Articles of Confederation. That is, to strengthen the federal government.