While attending last week's American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting, in Philadelphia, it seemed a self-evident truth that one must revere the founding documents and setting of American self-government. Unfortunately, the most recent attempt at honoring our Founding Fathers makes it more difficult to recover their wisdom.
The just-opened National Constitution Center museum has as its ambition that one "Enter as a visitor," but "Leave as a citizen." Unfortunately, the approach taken by its creators must perforce deny such a worthy ambition. The problem can be seen in the two quotations engraved on its entrance wall: "One country, one Constitution, one destiny" (Daniel Webster, 1837) and "The people themselves must be the ultimate makers of their own Constitution (Theodore Roosevelt, 1912).
The dominating theme of the Center is the people as "makers," as perpetual re-founders of the Constitution as it were. This is of course the living Constitution, the Progressive Constitution that this museum enshrines. By giving the Constitution "life" the Progressives of course sought to kill it off, replacing it with a Frankenstein creation of their own, organs from the cadavers of old politics, now brought to life by the power of evolutionary science.
Even as the museum seeks in many displays to "balance" a liberal with a conservative (e.g., Justice William Brennan and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, among many such pairings), the overall effect is to emphasize the people's effects on the Constitution rather than its guidance of the people. A glance at the Center's Scholars Advisory Panel confirms this impression—only Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine Law School could qualify as a natural law interpreter who sees a bond between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The others are generally predictable choices—Supreme Court Justices Breyer, Scalia, and of course O'Connor; Bill Moyers; Akhil Amar; Stanley Katz; Sanford Levinson; Jack Rakove; Kathleen Sullivan; and Cass Sunstein. But a few members are less predictable-- for example, Alan Tarr and John Yoo. Nonetheless, disagreements occur at the edges of the constitutional debates, not at their heart.
The compromises are evident in the opening show, which combines an actor and multi-media in a round theater to proclaim that a document can create a way of life. But what does the document say? "Power must come from the people" is what we are to learn. But isn't it rather authority and not Hobbesian power that the American people bestow on our government? The Center's press release aptly summarizes the intent of the 450-foot long hallway of glass Constitution before us:
"As they make their journey through constitutional history, visitors will discover that the Constitution affects nearly every facet of their lives. Through interactive components, visitors will actively learn how the Constitution affects how the government functions. Only at the NCC will people be able to watch themselves take the Presidential Oath of Office on the steps of the Capitol, see and hear the stories of 100 [perpetually changing] Americans on the Center's video American National Tree [Is that Dinesh D'Souza I spotted?], put on a robe and sit on a replica of a Supreme Court bench, and vote for their favorite U.S. President of all time."
What are the children to make of all this? More edifying in this American Experience gallery are videos with a point-counterpoint arguing various controversies—the constitutional theory of the Civil War, for example. These are entries into deeper understandings of the issues. We read short exchanges posing Bill Bennett against Justice Thurgood Marshall, Michael Greve versus Cass Sunstein; and so on. Ben Stein responds to kids' questions about the Constitution. But the effect of some of the displays is to wonder whether there was language in the Constitution about "blacks and other persons." Jarringly, the section on the last major constitutional crisis of our time, impeachment, ends with a quotation from Senator Barbara Boxer: "The Constitution does not say remove the President if he fails to be a good role model for our children." Perhaps this is meant to be ironic commentary on the qualities of the United States Senate, and not a slur against the Constitution or children.
Leaving in haste the hallway of the glass Constitution, we enter a stunning Signer's Hall of 42 life-size bronze figures—the 39 men who signed the Constitution and three who refused. We walk about them, and, provided we know anything about them, we can be moved—to sign or dissent from the Constitution, whatever our mood. (Is this the Californization of the Constitution?)
Unfortunately, should we desire to read more about these Founders, the bookstore provides little for that purpose. The souvenir bobble-head presidents may be another ironic commentary on the status of constitutional government. The museum is a witness to the century-long dominance of the Progressive political scientists who met last weekend just a short walk up Market Street. They have succeeded in denigrating the Founding Fathers all too well, such that we today do not even know how far we have declined.
One lets the new museum off too easily by recalling that the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, has offered up far worse. With that in mind, one is obliged to report that the opening film at Independence Hall now notes with pride that it is on the United Nations list of world historical sites. My protest to the Park Ranger was met with some sympathy but more resignation. It could not be a violation of the freedom of speech for Congress to order such condescending language stripped from Park Service descriptions. Let the Supreme Court quote international bodies to support its increasingly bizarre reading of the Constitution; just keep that language off of our shrines. The room where the Founders did their work in 1776 and 1787 seemed smaller than ever, their achievements incomparably greater.
But while our memories remain there is still hope. Museums can provide both. An exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, "George Washington: Picturing a Legend," encourages the viewer to recreate the temper of the Founding generation. Through some two dozen paintings and artifacts, Washington is portrayed as a hero, an object of partisan dispute, the prayed-for unifier of a nation about to be torn apart by Civil War; the man who made America through military deeds, through his superhuman achievements; and through his republicanism, that is, his devotion to self-government, the proper subject of a museum devoted to the Constitution.