You Say You Want A Constitution

Human Rights

The last time I read the U.S. Constitution all the way through was almost fifty years ago, when I was a student at Swarthmore College. My roommate Marc Merson and I were at work on a one-act play (United We Stood); its premise was that an English literature professor had stumbled on the fact that the founding fathers had inadvertently signed the wrong document. (Patrick Henry fell in a beer vat at a party the night before the signing and misplaced the original.) The document they signed had a different ratification requirement and as a result, the Constitution was unconstitutional! The problem of the play: Should the professor reveal his finding to the world, risking all the chaos that would cause, or should he hide the truth?

I won't tell you the ending but I will tell you that when Bobby Handman called on behalf of People for the American Way to ask whether I would join Kathleen Turner, Floyd Abrams, James Naughton, Roger Rosenblatt, Richard Gere, Judge Jack Weinstein, Ossie Davis, Betty Friedan and others in a reading of the Constitution at Cooper Union's Great Hall on the third day of the Republican convention, I said yes, absolutely.

My hope, as I explained to Roger Rosenblatt in the green room before the reading, was to get the Fifth Amendment. "No, stupid," said Rosenblatt: "You're not supposed to take it, you're supposed to read it."

My fear that a simple reading of the Constitution, no matter how accomplished the readers, would fail to entertain the full-house audience turned out to be unjustified. The energetic crowd whistled and whooped and cheered for their favorite passages: the First Amendment (read by Floyd Abrams) and the Civil War amendments against slavery and guaranteeing the vote (read by Ossie Davis). Betty Friedan got a standing ovation when she recited the Nineteenth, which granted women the right to vote.

They hissed and booed when they heard the line where blacks are counted only as "three fifths of all other Persons," and grumbled during the reading of the National Rifle Association's favorite, the Second Amendment; and they laughed and booed, then cheered, as Prohibition was first incorporated into the Constitution and then repealed.

As luck would have it, I got to read Article I, Section 7, which included more subordinate clauses than I could count, and dealt with, among other things, the President's veto power. It interested me, however, that the word "veto" was never used. Instead the clause said that before a bill shall take effect it "shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and the House of Representatives..." I now want to look into the legislative history of this upbeat formulation.

Although the event provided an ideal occasion to reflect on the social evolution of this great document (especially in the midst of this week's celebration of an administration bent on subverting it), the audience also took joy in some of the unintended double-entendres. For example, after Rosenblatt read the clause that says, "The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January," he paused as the audience rose as one to stomp and cheer.

After the reading, we were all given a copy of the original (which was on display in a case upstairs). I checked the ratification clause and saw that it was the real thing.

It was all very moving.

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