America's constitutional milestone
ONE year from today the United States will celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution. After only 11 years since the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it may be difficult for the American people to get excited about the Constitution's historic milestone. Let us hope that this is not the case, for of the two documents, there is little doubt that the declaration must take a back seat to the Constitution. The reason is twofold: First, the American Revolution was being fought before there was a declaration. The actual break with the mother country came on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress approved a formal motion to that effect. The declaration not only came after the fact but was a controversial document in Congress, as evidenced by the three-day debate and group editing. Second, this uneasiness over the document was because the Revolution was less a crisis caused by serious abuses by Great Britain and more a nationalistic one designed to effect an independent nation.
For that reason, most of the declaration was a series of charges -- some might conclude trumped up -- against George III, even though congressmen were well aware of the fact that Parliament was responsible for colonial policy leading to the Revolution. Of course, Thomas Jefferson recognized that Parliament could not be personified into an opprobrious object, whereas the king could, thereby providing a propaganda charactertistic attractive to wavering colonists. Note, for example, the following indictments against George III that offer more emotion than precise wrongs:
``He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.''
The remarkable quality of the Constitution, on the other hand, is the care that went into its substance by delegates who spent more than three hot, muggy months in Philadelphia in 1787. No rush and emotional task, the Constitution also differed from the declaration in that it was unquestionably necessary: The Articles of Confederation, the new nation's first form of government, were so badly flawed that the states held political power, preventing the formation of a United States of America.
Lest we forget, too, popular democracy has a darker underside that the Constitution would remedy: That pertains to the people's will, however much effected by a majority, that can be wrong, by virtue of violating constitutional provisions. And so it was fortunate that the new nation moved from a state of revolutionary fervor to the dispassionate scene of Constitution-making.
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.