Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Againby Eric Lane, Michael Oreskes
An inspiring and revelatory look at the document that has made our country the longest surviving democracy in the history of civilization: The Constitution of the United States.
The history of democracy is a history of failure. The United States holds the record at 230 years, yet the document at the nation's center is one that we take for granted. Due/b>… See more details below
An inspiring and revelatory look at the document that has made our country the longest surviving democracy in the history of civilization: The Constitution of the United States.
The history of democracy is a history of failure. The United States holds the record at 230 years, yet the document at the nation's center is one that we take for granted. Due to a combination of heightened frustration, moves to skirt the constitutional process, and a widespread disconnect between the people and their constitutional "conscience," Lane and Oreskes warn us our system is at risk.
The Genius of America looks at the Constitution's history relative to this current crisis. Starting with the eleven years between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution's adoption, they show how our near failure to create a loosely knit nation led the framers to devise a system that takes human nature into account. Next they provide examples of how we have weathered crises in the past, from early attempts at political tyranny to the Civil War. Finally they turn to two periods, one of great consensus (from Roosevelt's New Deal through Johnson's Great Society) and another of division (from Reagan through George W. Bush), both of which demonstrate the Constitution's effectiveness.
In the final assessment, Lane and Oreskes challenge us to let this great document work as it was designedin times of change and stasis. They hold our leaders accountable, calling on them to stop fanning the flames of division. And while evenhanded in its presentation, The Genius of America reminds us the Constitution is our national glue.
“Though the personal stories of the founding fathers have become hot properties, the institutions the framers created--the executive, the judiciary and especially the congress--enjoy none of that popularity. Lane and Oreskes seek to change that by reminding us of how essential the Constitution is to our nationhood and why it's important for the country to rekindle the Constitutional conscience as we face the challenges of the twenty-first century.” Cokie Roberts, ABC News and NPR, author Founding Mothers
“Our Constitution properly understood and applied could restore the nation's equilibrium between the instinct for individualism and the need for vital sense of community. It might also have avoided the tragedy of Iraq by prompting Congress to use its power under Article 1 to declare or not declare war, as well as to end it. Lane and Oreskes summon us to restore our Constitution's efficacy by our reconnecting with its history and its intelligence. They do it brilliantly.” Governor Mario Cuomo
“We the Readers have a treat in store: a close look inside the secret meeting that struggled, convulsed and produced America's political Scripture. Mike Oreskes and Eric Lane explore the collective genius that created our ‘constitutional conscience' and show how the genuine political genius of Madison enables today's majority to rule without ruining the rights of the minority.” William Safire, New York Times columnist
“With vivid narrative and perceptive analysis, The Genius of America reminds us of the Constitution's amazing resilience and adaptability. Lane and Oreskes bring to life the era of the Framers and the critical moments in our history that tested their vision, and make a powerful case that the troubled state of contemporary American politics can be rectified within the structure of a constitutional system predicated more on the pursuit of self-interest than the spread of republican virtue. Every American would benefit from reading this book--starting with the president and vice president and the members and leaders of Congress.” Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Co-authors of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track
The New York Times
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THE GENIUS OF AMERICAHow the Constitution Saved Our Country-and Why It Can Again
By Eric Lane Michael Oreskes
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2007 Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MORE FATAL PROBLEM LIES AMONG THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES
A people is traveling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and themselves. -John Dickinson, American patriot, 1768
Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. -George Washington, American patriot, eighteen years later
One of the enduring lessons of our own age is that what happens in men's minds can be more powerful and lasting than what happens on the field of battle. No event in history illustrates this any more clearly than the American Revolution. What we think of as the Revolution actually occurred in two parts, as one of one of the nations founders, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, pointed out in 1787. The first was a military rebellion in which King George III lost control of part of his North American empire. It was a remarkable event, the first time in many years that a British army had been defeated. But for all that sense of a world turned upside down, this war might well have become a footnote to world history (if perhaps not British history) were it not for the second, intellectual, revolution that took place among the colonists between 1776 and 1787. Those eleven years are the most important in the history of the invention of the United States and quite possibly the most important in the history of the idea of democracy. Because during those years the framers of the Constitution redefined what it meant to be a democracy and what it would take to stay a democracy. They established something totally new. To understand the government they gave us, we need to understand the experience that caused them to create it.
Americans declared their independence from England in 1776, of course, and eleven years later, in 1787, wrote our Constitution. The two documents they produced are the touchstones of American democracy. Both are dedicated to the preservation of liberty. But the two documents enshrine remarkably different notions of how to do that. In I776, the founders were focused on throwing off bonds and giving the people (at least white males with property) the right to participate in the political system. By 1787, the framers understood that liberty could not survive unless joined to a system that could balance one group's self-interests against another's.
Events changed the framers' minds. Human nature wasn't quite what they had thought and hoped. In 1776, on the eve of independence and war, Americans viewed themselves as capable of suppressing their individual self-interest for the public good, in the conduct of their public affairs. They called this ability public virtue. America was a blank slate, Tom Paine declared in 1776, and Americans would write with virtue on it. All they needed to do was declare liberty from the corrupt and aging empire that subjugated them.
By 1787, the framers along with many Americans had a different self-assessment. Americans, it turned out, were like people everywhere and at all times, mostly self-interested and self-regarding and, in the public arena, usually unable to suppress their self-interests for the greater good.
What explains such a dramatic reversal of their view of human nature in a mere eleven years? In a word: reality. The reality of American conduct during the war and the ensuing efforts to build the new nation had demonstrated to the founders that self-interest, not public virtue, was the citizenry's most compelling motivation. Simple liberty from Great Britain had not been adequate to ensure success of the new nation. Real people simply could not sustain the life of public virtue envisioned in the revolutionary fervor.
This change of view would have a profound effect on the shape of our government as laid out in the Constitution. Americans needed a new form of government based on this new acceptance of what people are really like. "But what is government," James Madison, the father of the Constitution, wrote in 1788, "but the greatest of all reflections of human nature?"
A Utopian Movement
Gordon Wood, the eminent historian, described the Revolution as "one of the great utopian movements of American history." This sounds puzzling at first, because we have come to think of the founders as such practical, pragmatic men. But Wood is starting the conversation in the mid-1700s with an examination of the decision to rebel in the first place. That decision was built, centrally, on a belief that human beings can improve. Or, more specifically, that Americans in their new land could be better citizens-more virtuous is how they would say it-than they had been under their British rulers. Virtue was an important political concept to the colonists. Their reading of history, particularly classical history, led them to conclude that liberty was "fragile" and required public virtue for its maintenance. Public virtue was all ability to see the larger, common good and sacrifice some of your own interests to achieve it. "When virtue is banished, ambition invades the hearts of those who are capable of receiving it, and avarice possesses the whole community," observed the philosopher Montesquieu. It was self-interest, the decline of virtue, which had destroyed the Greek and Roman republics. Without public virtue, tyranny would prevail, the founders believed, but with it greatness was possible. The framers themselves would come to recognize the utopian nature of this faith.
Avarice possessing the whole community would not be a bad description of America in the 1760s and early 1770s. It certainly was not a harmonious place. The entire country seemed to be in a self-destructive uproar. The colonists were "a quarrelsome, litigious, divisive lot of people." People seemed to sue each other "almost as regularly as they ate or slept." Such contentiousness also marked the behavior within and between the colonies. Western North Carolina went to war with eastern North Carolina. The farmers of western Massachusetts were at odds with the commercial interests of Boston. Among the colonies there were constant disputes over boundaries. For example, rival settlers from Pennsylvania and Connecticut almost shed blood over claims to land in northeastern Pennsylvania. Discord among colonists was so prevalent that even some of the most independence-leaning leaders saw it as a threatening problem. James Otis, a Massachusetts revolutionary, warned in 1765, "Were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion."
Yet despite this discord, over the next ten years, they moved steadily if not inexorably toward separation from England. How was this possible? In large measure it was because they believed the chaos, the decaying virtue, was caused by their relationship to Great Britain. England was their prime modern-day example of a fallen country, like the Greeks and Romans. As viewed from the Atlantic seaboard, the English had dissipated the liberty brought by the Glorious Revolution (1688) through an obsessive desire for wealth, power and position, social rank and refinement. This pursuit of self-interest, according to John Dickinson, had sunk the English into a "tameness and supineness of spirit" and, as a result, servitude to both Parliament and king. Dickinson worried the same thing was happening already in America.
Among the leaders of the American Revolution, John Dickinson was an important figure. He was involved in every debate from the opposition to the stamp tax in 1765 to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. He drafted the Articles of Confederation, America's first, ultimately failed, Constitution. Yet he has been largely lost to us, compared to the prominence of his colleagues. Perhaps that is because he was more conservative than some of them. He was a forceful defender of American rights, yet until the bitter end he argued for reconciliation with Great Britain. On July 2, 1776, he said that declaring independence was premature (although once done, he immediately joined the Revolutionary Army).
But to understand the ideas that motivated the colonists in those years, we must excavate John Dickinson's powerful and articulate voice. He was a master wordsmith. Indeed, it was Dickinson, not Thomas Jefferson, who was known as "the penman of the Revolution." In the prewar years, he was the most brilliantly articulate spokesman for that faith in public virtue that gave Americans the confidence to rebel.
John Dickinson was a lawyer by trade, an American "aristocrat" by birth and a conciliator by nature. In 1765, he had gained a national reputation, at the age of thirty-three, as a leader of the resistance to the Stamp Act, England's imposition of a direct tax on such things as newspapers, almanacs, legal papers, and playing cards. The colonists won the Stamp Act fight, but almost immediately Parliament enacted new measures that Dickinson considered a new threat to American freedom. The Quartering Act required the colonies to house and supply British troops. The Restraining Act suspended the New York State Assembly for refusing to obey the Quartering Act. And the Townsend Acts imposed various duties and tariffs on colonial trade.
In the winter of 1767, Dickinson published fierce arguments against these burdens. More important, in terms of the intellectual evolution of America's ideas of government and public virtue, he lectured the colonies themselves for their poor response to these acts, particularly the Restraining Act. They had been selfish, he believed, refusing to support each other. "He certainly is not a wise man, who folds his arms, and reposes himself at home, viewing, with unconcern, the flames that have invaded his neighbor's house." This lack of concern of one colony for another, one group of persons for another, echoed what Dickinson believed had undermined liberty in both England and in all of history's republics. The colonies needed to be warned that selfishness, failure to stand together, failure to display public virtue, was a threat to liberty.
Dickinson's medium was a series of letters, titled "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies." Dickinson was a farmer in only the loosest sense. He was actually one of the largest property owners in Pennsylvania, wealth he inherited on his father's death in 1760. But that detail did not interfere with the enormous impact of his writings.
First published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle between December 2, 1767, and February 15, 1768, these letters proved so popular that they were quickly reprinted in all but four of the twenty-three colonial newspapers and in pamphlet form. They contained a sharp critique of British policy and the deterioration of British politics. But more, they are a brilliantly articulate record of the belief in the importance of public virtue that was taking hold among the intellectual classes of revolutionary-era America. In his letter of January 15, 1768, he described the fatal vice of the English people that most Americans believed was destroying English freedom:
My Dear Countrymen,
Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is traveling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the office of life, if they earnestly endeavor to encrease their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live. A Farmer
The Break with England
Over the next ten years, repeated efforts by Parliament in London to tax and regulate the internal relations of the colonies convinced many Americans that Dickinson was right about the decay of British political society and the threat of that decay to Americans. John Adams observed that official corruption in England was a "Cancer" that had become "too deeply rooted, and too far spread to be cured by anything short of cutting it out entire." In fact, this notion of the corrupting influence of British politics was so strong that it helped scuttle an effort to find a middle ground to avert separation. In 1774, Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed, in effect, a two-house legislative system. Parliament in London and a national legislature in America would act together on issues concerning the colonies. Parliament would continue to have authority over America, but the colonists could no longer be taxed without the consent of their own representatives as well. The compromise drew considerable support in the Continental Congress, the single house assembly of state representatives that governed America from independence through ratification of the Constitution and the establishment of the new government. But Patrick Henry rose in opposition. This solution would accomplish little, he said. "We shall liberate our Constituents from a corrupt House of Commons, but throw them into the Arms of an American Legislature that may be bribed by that Nation (Britain) which avows in the Face of the World, that Bribery is a Part of her System of Government." By a vote of 6 states to 5, Galloway's compromise was killed. Imagine if that vote had gone the other way. The rise of America, and the evolution of democratic government, might have followed a very different path.
Yet having rejected compromise, separation from England was still a frightening and radical prospect. On the eve of war many Americans, including Dickinson, still favored reconciliation with England. To them, separation was "a leap in the dark." It was not enough just to believe that virtue was in decay under British rule, as Dickinson had argued. To sever their ties to the most powerful nation on earth, to their motherland, Americans had to believe they could do better on their own. If they made this leap in the dark, they asked, "where would they land?"
The man who proclaimed the answer more powerfully than anyone else was a new arrival to America. He would become the best-known and most articulate revolutionary polemicist of the late 1700s, on both sides of the Atlantic. His name was Thomas Paine. "We have it in our power," Paine instructed, "to begin the world over again." Independence now from England could save America from its discord and conflict, Paine wrote in a tract he called Common Sense. To Paine, the very word republic meant the public good. "Youth is the seed time of good habits, as well in nations as in individuals, the present time is the true time for establishing it [an American republic]. The intimacy which is contracted in infancy, and the friendship which is formed in misfortune, are, of all others, the most lasting." And the good habit Paine expected of liberated Americans was public virtue, the capacity of citizens of the new Republic to suppress their individual interests for the public good. This is, of course, exactly what Americans had proven unable to do under British rule.
But then again, Tom Paine had not been in America the past ten strife-filled years. He had arrived from England only in the fall of 1774, so sick with typhus that he had to be carried ashore. It is hard to say what would have happened to the penniless and friendless Paine if not for the letter he brought with him from England. It was from the most famous man in America, Benjamin Franklin, who was then serving in England as America's representative. Improbably, based on Paine's record of failure in England, Franklin vouched for Paine, whom he had met in London. That was enough for Robert Aitken, a bookseller, who hired Paine to write for his inaugural issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine, probably the most important hire of a freelance writer in the history of America.
Excerpted from THE GENIUS OF AMERICA by Eric Lane Michael Oreskes Copyright © 2007 by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Eric Lane is a professor of law at Hofstra University School of Law and the author of several texts on government, and has served as director of the New York State Commission on Constitutional Revision, on the New York City Charter Revision Commission, and as counsel to the New York State Democrats. Michael Oreskes is the executive editor of the International Herald Tribune. He has served as deputy managing editor, Washington bureau chief, and metropolitan editor of the New York Times.
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Your political affiliation doesn't matter. This is an excellent civics lesson for all.
This book was a great read. It was a brief history lesson on how the Constitution was created and what the political environment was like during the time it was created. The authors really hit the mark in relating how the framers designed a perfect government. It points out how our government is supposed to work and how we can easily unravel the great design if we don't pay attention. It made me proud to be an American.