America begins a yearlong crash course in Constitution
True or false: All 13 American states were represented at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. True or false: The Constitution was signed by the 55 men attending the convention.Skip to next paragraph
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True or false: The Constitution signed in 1787 did not contain the Bill of Rights.
True or false: All the American states were required to ratify the Constitution.
If you answered ``false,'' ``false,'' ``true,'' and ``false'' to the above, mark ``Excellent'' on your bicentennial report card. But if you faltered, be prepared for a yearlong crash course in the how, why, and what of the United States Constitution.
This year's celebration of 200 years of that ``magnificent charter,'' as one legal scholar calls it, will abound in red-white-and-blue revelry. States and communities across the country will mount parades, fireworks, festivals, concerts, and athletic races while nimble entrepreneurs flood the land with T-shirts, medals, and all manner of souvenirs.
Americans are bracing for the onslaught. By the time the official celebration takes place on Sept. 17, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, public enthusiasm may be somewhat frayed.
But the celebration will also have its more serious, educational side. Planners of bicentennial events - from government leaders and corporate executives to universities, schools, and community groups - are hoping to raise the American consciousness about the historic beginnings and operation of US representative democracy. If many Americans, including schoolchildren, are illiterate about the Constitution (polls show an appalling ignorance), they should be much wiser by the end of the festivities, which will stretch through the anniversary of the Bill of Rights in 1991.
Ironically, the celebration is picking up steam just as the US presidency is again weakened and the US Supreme Court is under assault. The Iran-contra debacle and Attorney General Edwin Meese's criticism of the court's ``activism'' have given impetus to a national debate about the American political system and the capacity of the three branches to cope with today's complex problems.
Many ardent defenders of the Constitution resist structural change, but it is not denied that there are often kinks and deadlocks in the system.
``One message is that this whole system is more fragile than the majority of the people think,'' says Warren Burger, who retired as chief justice last year to devote himself full time as chairman of the Commission on the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. ``We have taken it for granted, but there was nothing like it before 1787. ... And it's a fragile business if we're not watching it. As [Benjamin] Franklin said, it's `a republic if we can keep it.'''
Some 1,000 events are already planned to help the public appreciate their democratic republic. To name but a few:
The Bicentennial Commission is sponsoring essay contests for high school and law students; launching national television, radio, and newspaper ads; and distributing 2.5 million pocket-size copies of the Constitution.
CBS, NBC, and ABC have produced bicentennial ``minutes'' featuring well-known and ordinary Americans discussing the Constitution and will also air special series. Public television and cable stations will also be bursting with programs about the Constitution.
General Motors, Merrill Lynch, and other corporations are underwriting television programs; Walt Disney World has a yearlong exhibit at EPCOT; and Random House has made a film, ``The US Constitution in Action,'' for secondary schools.
Private projects include a traveling Washington Antiques Show; a tour of the Magna Carta, drafts of the Constitution, and other historic artifacts; and special museum exhibits. The National Grange has issued a commemorative cookbook, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews will have a ``Sign On to the Constitution'' program, in which Americans read and sign copies of the Constitution during the month of September.
The National Archives, Defense Department, National Park Service, Postal Service, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and more than 70 other agencies of the US government have planned projects ranging from films and publications to symposiums and essay contests.