17 June 2010

Choosing the Right (or Left): Using words to construct a social contract

When the United States Constitution was written, a number of men of wide-ranging beliefs and experience gathered together to labor under the exigency of securing their terribly important and hard-won experiment in ideal society. After extensive debate, they still could not completely agree, even though they had virtually all read and subscribed to the same overarching political philosophies. Why is this so? And what has it meant to us?

First, it is important to consider the broad spectrum of personalities and backgrounds. The majority were lawyers, but a good number were merchants, financiers, businessmen, or scholars. Many owned agricultural property; some held slaves, and others strictly opposed slavery. A few were clergy. Most were well educated. Either by virtue of birthright, or by exceptional motivation and intelligence, many attended the finest schools in the colonies. A good number rose from fairly modest circumstances and others were markedly wealthy. A few were first-generation immigrants, but at least one was a Plymouth pilgrim descendant. All were considered their state's brightest and best, and were likely elected to their seat in the Constitutional Convention because they represented the attitudes and expectations of their individual constituencies. Perhaps most importantly, all believed firmly in the importance of forming a free society that could endure.

This is where the dilemma arose. Each understood certain key words differently: freedom, democracy, republicanism, federalism, confederalism, to name a few. Probably every man saw the American experiment as unique, groundbreaking and an outgrowth of the human need to live according to the dictates of one's conscience. They just saw it in a different way, in different terms. Central government or loose confederation of states? A dominant executive, or a strictly apportioned senate? These consideration and hundreds more occupied them until they were worn down by the effort. In the end, each had to capitulate to the reality that they would never, could never agree. The final product was a study in compromise, somewhat unwillingly attained. Ratification by disgruntled states took over three more years.

The great genius of the Constitution is that the words everyone finally signed off on were so open to interpretation. So not etched in stone, so debatable. The lifeblood of the Constitution is not that is spells everything out. It is that it provided a sturdy enough framework that succeeding generations could build and rebuild within its principles to spell their own words - to fashion a government that works for all generations. Since its ratification, the Constitution has undergone 27 amendments. It is a testament to our faith in the original document that we do not take these changes lightly or come by them easily.

Even the founding fathers, with all their background in political philosophy, enlightenment theory, classical republicanism and Greek democratic ideology could not hammer out a precise document, because they could not predict future imperatives. Fundamentally, they all understood the necessity of self-determination but could not agree on the words which could exactly define each's vision of that goal. Nearly every man walked away from his signature deeply dissatisfied with the resulting document. In all their brilliance, they did not understand that the very ambiguity of the Constitution was its strength. To last it could not be inflexible: like a tall building built to flex in the wind, or move slightly with the shifting of the ground, the Constitution was built to both shelter and to stand.

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