Constitution Day Recalls U.S. History

Posted September 16, 2008 at 5:25pm

Is the Constitution just a historic piece of paper, or does it represent an idea that each generation renews? These are more than academic questions: They’re the questions Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe wants to talk about for Constitution Day.

Tribe, who specializes in constitutional law, is the main speaker for today’s celebration of the 221st birthday of the Constitution at the National Archives. Tribe’s lecture, which happens to coincide with the release of his newest book, “The Invisible Constitution,” will argue that a number of commonly believed rights people draw from the Constitution are not explicitly mentioned in it.

“There are principles in that invisible Constitution that are at least as basic as anything that is written down and are not to be found in the text,” Tribe explained. “People usually come up with examples like the right of privacy or the right of people to determine the shape of their own lives, which is something we take for granted, and I do talk about things like that, but there are also structural principles like the principle that no state may secede from the union.”

Tribe’s lecture is part of a series of events in the past two weeks that have led up to Constitution Day. The National Archives has also offered a number of exhibits, including one on the preamble to the Constitution and a display of the Declaration of Independence.

Maria Carosa Stanwich, head of operations and public programs at the National Archives, said that because the National Archives has the original Constitution, celebrating its day is especially meaningful for those associated with the archive.

Last week, Michael Meyerson, a professor at the University of Baltimore who specializes in the Federalist Papers, gave a lecture on the writing of the papers and how they have been interpreted since.

Meyerson said that the kind of bipartisanship that allowed the authors of the Federalist Papers to create them does not exist today but is one of the most important lessons that can be drawn from that period.

“I think in part it was a magic time,” Meyerson said. “It was a magic time because to create a new Constitution brought out the best in people. I think what happens is that there’s a constitutional moment which can bring out the best in people.”

Meyerson said that magic period has since disappeared. “I think it’s very difficult for anyone, left or right, red or blue, to see beyond the short-term issue,” Meyerson said.

Like Meyerson, Tribe said much could be gained from understanding historical papers like the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. Tribe said the next president of the United States must understand the Constitution.

“I think one of the things that’s very much at stake in the forthcoming election is whether we end up with a president who believes in the Constitution, loves the Constitution, has taught the Constitution, or a president who frankly believes in the country in some broad sense but doesn’t seem to be anymore adherent of deep constitutional values than George Bush has been.”