'WE THE PEOPLE': rightful custodians of the Constitution

By

TUNE up the fife, put a shine on the bugle, unfurl Old Glory, and break out a map of Philadelphia. The bicentennial of the US Constitution is just around the corner.

For a nation that revs up for Christmas before Thanksgiving, breaks out winter fashions in July, and gets set for baseball while there's still snow on the ground, 1984 doesn't seem too early to start planning for a 200th anniversary that is not due until 1987.

In any event, many of the commissions and conclaves, projects and publications, are being launched now. But what's it all about? Amid the planning for festivals and finery, pomp and ceremony, there's a deeper meaning we must be careful not to miss.

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The bicentennial gives an opportunity for a rededication to the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and for some careful thought about the wisdom of constitutional revision.

It's long been fashionable to talk about changing the Constitution, particularly in terms of limiting the president to a single six-year term or allowing US representatives to serve four years instead of two before having to seek reelection. These are ideas whose time may have come. Recent efforts, however, to call a constitutional convention for a specific purpose - balancing the federal budget, abolishing abortion, or establishing school prayer - should be viewed with caution. With due respect for Thomas Jefferson, who suggested a constitutional convention (for whatever purpose) every century or so, such a gathering might only promote divisiveness rather than unification and serve special interests rather than the general good.

The Founding Fathers did not intend to make the Constitution amendment-proof. But they took pains to write it not only for their times but for the ages. And they left ample opportunity for such concepts as individual rights to expand without having to change the document itself. Much of what the Constitution doesn't mention, such as the right to an education and equal opportunity for women, is still embodied in the system - spelled out through the courts or embedded in state law.

We have ample proof that the oldest existing document of its kind anywhere in the world works well. It has withstood periodic battering from both the left and right. The folksy axiom seems appropriate: If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Needed in place of some narrow, perhaps partisan, amendments: a better understanding of the ideas that motivated the nation's founders; a greater awareness of how the Constitution works and the individual liberties it protects; and an appreciation of why Americans should more actively participate in their government.

Recent studies have shown a lag along these lines. The Federalist papers - the brilliant work of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay which is the linchpin of the Constitution - are relatively unknown, not only to the public at large, but even to teachers and students. The precepts of civil rights , including criminal defense, are vague in the minds of citizens. Further, Americans - whose freedoms outstrip those in other democracies around the world - have the worst record for voter turnout in elections. Just over 50 percent cast their votes in national elections. By contrast, between 70 to 80 percent turn out in Canada.

Although a federal Bicentennial Commission won't be established until after November, various groups are already spotlighting the coming event and promoting renewed awareness of the Constitution. Among them, the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is sponsoring a series of university-based conferences on this subject. The endowment recently invited historians and political scientists as well as secondary school teachers and journalists (including this writer) to Wake Forest University in North Carolina to re-debate the Federalist papers. A similar conclave is under way at Boston College (today through Saturday); and others are planned for San Jose State College in California and Brigham Young University in Utah during May.

In addition, the American Political Science Association's ''Project '87'' is publishing materials on the Constitution for junior high and high school students. The project is also planning college faculty workshops on the First Amendment, Congress and the presidency, and women and the Constitution. Public television is planning programs on the nation's history geared to various age groups. The American Bar Association and the Library of Congress have projects on the drawing board to broaden public understanding of the Constitution.

A note of caution: Although public funding for the bicentennial is essential, nonpartisan direction is also vital. The party in power in 1985 will doubtless play the major role in shaping celebrations. Temptation to flavor events with political ideology may be great. But we all need to remember that the Constitution isn't the property of Democrats or Republicans. As its Preamble indicates, ''WE THE PEOPLE'' are its rightful custodians.

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