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.

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.

Naturally, the city of Philadelphia, where 55 men met in May 1787 to craft the charter for a new-style republic, will become the focus of celebration in May. More than 100 events are planned by ``We the People 200,'' the local bicentennial commission, including exhibits, fife-and-drum parades, concerts, a musical for children, a sound-and-light show on Benjamin Franklin, reenactment of George Washington's arrival in Philadelphia, track-and-field meets, and a mock high school constitutional convention.

Pennsylvania is not alone in its zeal, however. Every state is planning commemorative events, and to date almost 500 towns, cities, and counties have been designated ``bicentennial communities.''

Delaware is producing a film about Founding Father John Dickinson and holding a national sculpture competition. Iowa will stage a quiz for high school students. Arizona will have a series of Town Hall meetings around the state. And the city of San Diego will stage a spectacular Parade of Ships.

Without denigrating what promises to be an outpouring of praise and pageant for the Constitution, some scholars voice concern that the public may be swept up in euphoria instead of using the occasion for thoughtful examination of how the American political system is functioning in 1987 and how it might be improved to overcome any impasse in many urgent areas.

``There's a need to induce people to treat the Constitution in terms of whether it serves the ends for which it was designed - to provide a government that is effective and accountable,'' says Donald L. Robinson, a government scholar at Smith College. ``Since World War II there are increasing signs of strain in both areas. ... In the face of this, to celebrate the bicentennial as a triumph is to miss a historic opportunity.''

This is the time, Professor Robinson says, to be debating what changes might make the government work in a way that preserves accountability in such key areas as budget deficits and warmaking powers.

Dr. Robinson is director of research of the bipartisan Committee on the Constitutional System, a private group of prominent politicians, scholars, and lawyers who are proposing a number of reforms to ease the chronic confrontation between the president and Congress and to bolster the political parties. These include constitutional amendments as well as reforms in party rules and federal laws.

There is a mystique about the Constitution, however. A document of less than 6,000 words, it has been amended only 26 times in history. And, while the committee's proposals will stimulate debate, they will not quickly see the light of day. Political leaders and academics are opposed to tampering with the Constitution.

As the bicentennial picks up steam, Chief Justice Burger says his primary concern is to ``get across an understanding of the historical background of the Constitution - its novelty and uniqueness and the difficulty of getting it ratified.''

Only nine of the 13 states were required to ratify the new charter. Delaware was the first and New Hampshire was the ninth. Rhode Island was the only state not to send delegates to the convention but it became the 14th state to ratify.

Burger's eyes shine as he recalls the history. ``There was nothing like it before 1787,'' he says. ``Going back to the thinkers of Greece and Rome, to Montesquieu, to the British and Scottish thinkers ... they were toying with ideas but they were never tried.''

Historically, the Constitution has not been not accorded the reverence of the Declaration of Independence. In Washington in 1882, writes Michael Kammen in his new book ``A Machine That Would Go of Itself,'' the Constitution was ``folded up in a little tin box in the lower part of a closet'' while the declaration was ``mounted with all elegance'' and exhibited in the State Department library.

The constitutional centennial in 1887 was met with widespread public indifference, recounts the Cornell historian. A sesquicentennial in 1937 found the country sharply divided over Supreme Court rulings on FDR's New Deal measures.

In this bicentennial year the American people, still woefully unversed in the Constitution, still apathetic, will be subjected to the biggest school drill of all time.

The Monitor begins a six-part series tomorrow on how well the Constitution is working.

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