The Constitution and a new generation

The Monitor's ``Constitutional Journal'' correspondent was invited to a student reenactment of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. There he talked about the Constitution and a new generation of Americans with retired Chief Justice Warren Burger. Young Americans have rewritten the United States Constitution. Their draft document repeals the two-term limit on the presidency. It guarantees equal rights to the sexes. It bans conscription except during a time of declared war. But these more than 50 high school student delegates preserved the overall substance of the historic document in their Labor Day weekend reenactment of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Their changes were not so extreme as to contradict what retired Chief Justice Warren E. Burger replied when one of the young people asked him whether a real Constitutional Convention in 1987 would produce results different from those of 1787.

``I have every confidence in the common sense of the people that they would not approve any radical changes,'' Mr. Burger said. ``It might be educational for the country to watch a second convention, but it would be a waste of time, because any radical departure from the original design would not be ratified by the states.''

This reenacted convention was certainly educational for the young people here, the winners of essay contests in their home states, presided over by a bewigged and costumed 17-year-old George Washington (Rob Nagle of Virginia). And education is a main purpose of the whole bicentennial celebration as seen by Burger, who was here as chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the US Constitution.

``George Mason of Virginia [one of the original delegates] said if the people don't go back and examine their liberties and how they got them, then they run the risk of losing them,'' he said. ``That's what we're trying to do with the Bicentennial Commission. This is a chance to give a history and civics lesson to all of us.''

He noted that the winning 1,500-word essays came from more than 13,000 by high school students in a program sponsored by the commission, the American Bar Association, and the Gannett Company and USA Today.

``We tried the same essay idea out on 180 law schools in the United States, and we got just 84 essays. Law schools today are so busy preparing students for their careers they don't seem to have time for thinking and writing about the Constitution. Yet up to one-half the lawyers coming into the courts today are inadequately trained and prepared.''

Burger said that during the past two years he has talked to 20,000 teachers as a way of ``getting them stirred up and enthusiastic and planting seeds'' for present and future discussions about the making of the Constitution.

In one of the discussions here, a difference between the framers and the student delegates was noted by Mark LaFever from North Carolina: ``Younger people seem to be more idealistic, so it was much harder to compromise [in the reenacted convention].''

Burger praised the students here under the auspices of the commission, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at William and Mary College: ``This is part of what the bicentennial should be about, the young learning about how the young nation was formed, mostly by young people. The other part is the young involving their parents and other adults.''

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