Friday, November 28, 2008

The Constitutional Legacy of Michener's America

This political election season has prompted me to read all sorts of stuff on politics, American history, constitutional philosophy, and biographies. The most recent book I just finished in this vein was James Michener's Legacy: A Novel. It's a slim book, which is visibly odd for anybody that has ever noticed a normal Michener tome. What's even more special than reading a Michener novel within a 24 hour period is the overview of constitutional evolution and history he carries the reader through in only 176 pages (this includes the Constitution too - of which I read every word!).

The story unfolds in Legacy through a Major Norman Starr who is about to go before a public Senate Hearing Committee concerning his role in the Iran-contra affair. Major Starr has not knowingly done anything illegal, but he is being put in a position where his lawyer is recommending he plead the Fifth in order to protect his own personal welfare. As Starr and his wife contemplate their situation and what they ought to do, they recount the Starr family heritage. The go all the way back to a member who was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, as well as one who signed the Constitution in 1787. Another member was a Supreme Court justice that served alongside the famous John Marshall; a feisty great-aunt was involved in the struggle for woman's suffrage, and a great-grandfather served alongside General Robert E. Lee in defending the interests of Virginia during the Civil War.

In recounting the different personalities, merits, and character of his family member's interactions with the Constitution, we begin to appreciate Major Starr's commitment to defending the Constititution, but also his interest in learning to apply it correctly to the new situations we face in new centuries, totally unforseen by the delegates who created it in Philadelphia. In comparison to the Starr's allegiance to the Constitution, my own has been one of indifference and basic ignorance. Not that I don't know anything about the Constitution, but what I do know is not based in the kind of respect that history requires. It is a unique document, a very favorable form of governing that should not be ignored by the average citizen.

Some impressions of the Constitution, it's creation, and its consequences - based on Michener's recounting of events:
* There was major tension on how to resolve the interests of the large prosperous states and those of the small states; the two houses of Congress were created to mollify the concerns of each (Representatives gave the large states power according to their population, Senate gave small states an equal voice amongst larger states).

* There was major tension over the roll of slavery, how to count slaves for taxation and voting purposes, and how to set in motion the eventual termination of slavery in the country. It seems that the issue was unresolvable at the time, lest the delegates fracture and thus form no Constitution at the time, if ever. So it was decided to postpone a decision for the next two decades, with the hopes that economic forces would eventually result in manumission of slaves.

* There was major interest in limiting the role and influence of religion upon the new government. Interestingly, according to Michener, it was because everybody was very religious (in one way or another) that religion was seen as a negative force upon governing. Nobody doubted the vital role religion played in forming men and women of good character, but nobody doubted either the terrible violence that religion could unleash when political power was involved (think of the bloody religious wars following the Reformation). It's true that Judeo-Christian ideas were evident in the documents of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and that the delegates were mostly Christian, but with the great interest most seemed to take in severely limiting the establishment of religion, it hardly seems practical to refer to America as a Christian nation.

* There was an interesting clash of wills when it came to the cause of woman's suffrage. Many men in the military, in the government, in the church, and in the pubs were against the right of woman to vote. Evidently enough men were won over to the cause that the amendment was passed in 1919, but many religious men were against it (citing St. Paul alot). It seems that the credibility of religion took a crippling blow upon the passage of woman's suffrage. Religion tried to insert itself in the political realities of interpreting and applying the Constitution, and it chose to defend the wrong cause. Religion seems to be taking a similar beating in opposing gay marriage, especially as the church tries to speak to how the Constitution ought to be applied. Those who are religious may want to reconsider what is the best way to live out the Good News in our Constitutional Democracy.

1 comment:

John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Interesting site on the Constitution at Might want to visit.