J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Big ConConCon

In September the Harvard Law School will be the host of a Conference on the Constitutional Convention, a name that has inspired the organizers to call their website conconcon.org. This event’s statement of purpose starts:
From the Right and the Left, citizens are increasingly coming to recognize that our Republic does not work as our Framers intended.
In fact, the Constitution never worked as its authors intended. As soon as George Washington stepped down from the presidency, the Electoral College produced unwanted results: a President and Vice President from opposing parties, followed by the even stranger and more rancorous election of 1800. That led politicians to seek a change in the Constitution’s clauses on governance. The first generation of U.S. citizens knew they didn’t have all the right answers.

The Conference on a Constitutional Convention is intended to discuss the idea of a new convention under Article V:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
(What’s that about “the Ninth Section of the first Article”? Even a convention wasn’t allowed to halt the transatlantic slave trade before 1808—a problem the Founders recognized, and recognized they didn’t have the will to do anything about.)

The conference’s F.A.Q. notes that the closest the U.S. of A. came to a second Constitutional Convention was in 1910, when nearly two-thirds of the states had voted to authorize one so that citizens instead of state legislatures could elect U.S. Senators. That prompted Congress to issue its own amendment language before a convention could happen.

Curiously, factions of the “Tea Party” have called for scrapping the resulting Seventeenth Amendment, which raises questions about what exactly those factions think preserving power for the people looks like.

Be that as it may, this conference is intended to discuss whether a Constitutional Convention can solve today’s political gridlock. I think the gridlock in Congress simply reflects the gridlock in the population, and in most of our own aspirations. With the exception of the presidential election of 2000, all our recent elections have reflected the will of the voters, contradictory and mixed as the results have been. Would a Constitutional Convention be any different?


John L. Smith said...

A new Constitutional Convention would be as gridlocked as the soon-to-meet Budgetary "Super Committee" (dumb name) will be when they meet. That's why 6 out of 10 congressmen aren't holding town hall meetings this month. People are tired of infighting and gridlock. One of many things George Washington saw forthcoming with political parties. *sigh*.

J. L. Bell said...

For the brief period of the 1780s that culminated in the writing of the Constitution, American Whigs seem to have genuinely believed their republic wouldn’t develop parties.

Yet within another decade, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were sitting down with Aaron Burr to form a political alliance against John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others.

The original U.S. Constitution would have been different if its drafters had imagined a system with political parties and worked around their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure it would have been better, but it would certainly have been more realistic.

Waldo4me said...

Gridlocked, perhaps, but immensely entertaining.

However, since we're on the topic, could you help me understand who, exactly, would attend the Constitutional Convention and how many delegates would be sent from the states? Also, who would make up the convention in the ratification alternative described as "or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress".

Good post. Thanks.

J. L. Bell said...

Presumably those are questions this pre-Convention conference would discuss.

Based on the one and only precedent, state governments would choose delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Back in 1787, the state legislatures chose those men, I believe. (Some went home when they thought the convention exceeded its mandate.) As the Seventeenth Amendment shows, however, Americans have largely moved away from having their state legislatures choose their representatives. So there might have to be special elections.

States also determined how they discussed ratifying the Constitution way back when, as I recall. Some held special conventions, and some ratified through their regular legislatures.

elektratig said...

Just saw this post, so forgive the late comment. For a good review of the history of the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment and discussion of why repeal should be considered, see this article by George Mason Lawprof Todd Zywicki. It's a 70-page pdf, so be warned!

Anonymous said...

The orginal constitutional convention was held in secret, without leaks to the press, so that debate and compromise within the convention would be unhindered. Does anyone think that level of media silence could occur or be tolerated by the public today? The smoky back rooms of politics do serve the useful purpose of fostering compromise. That atmosphere, and compromise in politics, is endangered today.