The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
BRINGING THE CONSTITUTION BACK IN

AMENDMENT, INNOVATION, AND POPULAR DEMOCRACY
DURING THE CIVIL WAR ERA

Michael Vorenberg

READING THE CONSTITUTION is like skimming an American history textbook—albeit a dated one. The original body of the Constitution and the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, give a sense of the causes and resolution of the American Revolution, and each successive amendment reveals the country at a moment of evolution, ostensibly toward the “more perfect union” described by President Abra- ham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address of 1863. This feature of the Con- stitution—its potential to serve as a road map of the country’s imagined march toward perfection—is perhaps the reason that, of all the genres of historical writing, constitutional history is most susceptible to whiggish- ness, to a tendency to see American political development as generally moving toward some higher form of democracy. Obviously, the tendency is to be resisted. Like all the best political history, constitutional history must avoid simplistic explanation and instead highlight the peculiar colli- sion of people, trends, and ideologies that led to unpredictable develop- ments, and it must avoid allowing political assumptions of the present to shade the telling of the past.

An especially dangerous pitfall involves the study of constitutional amendments. Too often, Americans assume that each amendment repre- sented an inevitable development in the country’s past, an obvious step in bringing the nation’s written charter into line with its actual conditions. Implicit in the assumption are two misguided premises: first, that the cre- ation of constitutional amendments was the result less of contingent, un- foreseeable events than of overpowering popular ideology; and second, that Americans, from the founding to the present, generally regarded amending the Constitution not only as legitimate but as the best and most effective means of achieving a national reform.

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