U.S. Constitution: A flexible document
July 7th, 2011
01:21 PM ET

U.S. Constitution: A flexible document

Yesterday night, Fareed Zakaria talked with Eliot Spitzer and Simon Schama about the U.S. Constitution, a topic that has stirred much discussion on the Global Public Square. Their key point was that our founding document is not monolithic - it requires constant interpretation and re-interpretation.

Here's an edited transcript of their conversation:

Eliot Spitzer: Rarely has Constitution been at the heart of our politics as much as it is today - from the Tea Party invoking it daily, to the claim that the Health Care Reform Act violates its mandates.  But what the Constitution actually means is a question that stirs all Americans.

Here to put it into context are two of the smartest minds out there: Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS and Columbia University historian and a newly minted contributor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, Simon Schama.

Simon, let me start with you. Let’s go back to the days of Hamilton and Jefferson. What the Constitution meant in terms of government power was at the vortex of their debate. Tell us about it.

Simon Schama: The miracle is that Hamilton and Jefferson ever collaborated enough to craft the Federalist Papers. Both of them - and it's a lesson for us - were prepared to sink their fundamental differences about what American government was to get the Constitution ratified.

The issue that is the hot button issue for us now is actually in the best tradition of American politics.  It is whether or not to take a relatively expansive view of what government should do.  Is government only entitled to do those things, which were enumerated in the late 18th century?

Spitzer: Fareed what would happen to this nation if Alexander Hamilton's vision hadn't won?

Fareed Zakaria: Well, it's impossible to imagine, right?

The Constitution was written by men in wigs, some of whom owned slaves, in a country that numbered 4 million.  They did not know of the existence of the cotton gin, let alone manufacturing.  They did not know of an army, navy and air force of the kind we have today, let alone all of modern technology.

Alexander Hamilton envisioned a modern, great industrial superpower. Thomas Jefferson's vision was essentially agricultural.

The founders all fought and disagreed, often vehemently, but there was one thing they were all very impressed by, and that was the classical Republican virtues.

The Constitution was written because the Articles of Confederation produced a central government that was too weak. They were worried about the fact there was no space for civic virtue, for public virtue, and for the proper handling of government debt. So that was why they brought together a stronger government and talked a great deal about civic virtue - about Republican virtue.

In other words, they were not so hard on individualism. They were more concerned about the common good.

But the most important thing they did was to write a short document. The reason the Constitution has endured and so many other constitutions haven't, is because it is short, which means that we fill it in with practice and historical experience.

It is a version of an English Constitution. People often point out famously that Britain has no constitution. Well, they have an accumulated set of practices. In that sense, the genius of the U.S. Constitution was they understood not to overdo it.

Spitzer: OK. So, let me jump then to a question which is at the heart of so much of this debate - the word originalism. People say we must interpret the Constitution as it was understood by those who drafted it. Does that make sense? And then, more suddenly, how do those who drafted it understand our ability - and you maybe just answered this - to add interpretations based upon new dynamics, new facts and new situations?

Schama: Well, originalism cannot possibly be a monolithic concept. As Fareed said, and I think the three of us agree, the glory of that founding was the intensity of its dispute. Disputes were never allowed to be so ferocious that they called, as some do in contemporary political sphere, for a virtual obliteration of the other party.

Madison and Hamilton did not demonize each other and say, "I'm the real American. You are a some form of, you know, crummy European traitor." They could have done it to Hamilton, who was an unapologetic admirer of the British state.

What Hamilton wanted to do was improve the British state and make it free. The British state was a monied, corrupt oligarchy. And Hamilton rebelled against that.

But he wanted to take the practical wisdom as a relationship between power, finance and political justice and make it better.

Spitzer: But bring that back to just the interpretation of the document itself, since that is - 

Schama: The Founding Fathers in all their disputes and disagreements were children of the Enlightenment. And the essence of the Enlightenment was to understand how to think about power and government. It was in their intellectual DNA to feel things would move on again.

Their generosity was to sort of organically provide for the Constitution to flower and bloom and change and mutate as circumstances changed.

Spitzer: Do we see that in the writings of time so we can say, "Wait a minute, the Founders themselves understood that the wooden interpretation of the words just on the page themselves would not deal with the crises we would have to deal with?"

Zakaria: I think what you can say is, for example, with Jefferson's views on slavery, clearly he felt this was a reckoning that had to come. And many people at the time recognized that there were major issues that were unfinished.

The nation was just being founded.  The United States is unusual that we became a state before we became a nation. And most countries - the German's, the French, the Italians - they were nations in a sense of blood and soil long before they became states.

In America, you first created a state. You first created a founding document, and then you got about creating Americans.

And so, nobody really knew how it would play out. I think there was a sense of uncertainty. And everyone accepted that. The idea that this was going to be some kind of biblical document is nowhere in the Founders’ conceptions.

What's striking about the Constitution, by the way, is at the time to have written such a relentlessly secular document - there's not a word about religion at a time when everything was about religion.

Spitzer: So, the Tea Party's invocation of the Constitution - is it historical? Does it misinterpret at its essence what this Constitution has been for the entirety of our nation's history?

Zakaria: Well, I think that they are right to recognize that America is unique and it has, at its core, not a blood and soil nationalism, but a document - a document about political ideas. And we should cherish them and we should debate them. But where they're wrong is in thinking it points in one simple monolithic direction.

It really is a brief document that allows you to fill in the blanks over the last 222 years, filled with disagreements from the Founding Fathers onwards. And so the idea that you can magically say the Constitution says this is flawed.  People keep saying, "Well, what would Madison have said about modern drug policy in Washington?" Who knows? The world the Founders knew was so different.

So of course you have to modernize the Constitution and interpret it.

For example, I don't think Americans think about the fact that the Constitution has also left us with some very peculiar situations. We think we're the most democratic country in the world, right? But we have an upper House now, the Senate, which is probably the most undemocratic and unrepresentative upper House in the world.

Spitzer: Because of the allocations: Each state gets two votes regardless of how many people they have - 36 million people in California, half a million in Wyoming.

Zakaria: Right. So if I were to say to you that people who own property should have 72 votes for every one vote that people who don't, you'd say that's crazy. But people in Wyoming have 72 votes for every vote that California has. It's in complete violation of one man, one vote.

Spitzer: Well, let me end this fascinating conversation by observing the debate about the Constitution and education about the Constitution that we all need is precisely what, I hope, folks get by listening to you. I hope people better understand the historical roots of what is a much more subtle, organic document than the wooden, monolithic and linear document we hear about so often. I hope we get that.

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Topics: Law • United States

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Kme

    Now, it's the SSA (Socialist States of America)

    July 11, 2011 at 2:25 am | Reply
  2. Greg

    Both Jefferson and Madison originally wanted Senators elected to lifetime terms, so that they could devote all there energies in office to high minded statesmanship, with no distractions about being re-elected.

    Needless to say, such an elitist proposal today would excite gales of laughter and ridicule.

    July 11, 2011 at 2:53 am | Reply
  3. Muin

    One thing I was suprised to read in the news that politicians signed a pledge to an unelected leader of an institution about tax. Why would anyone do this if they respect their constitution? isn't that sort of decision based on circumstance? There is no way to kno what would happen in future. Why would you sign such a pledge? i don't get it.

    July 11, 2011 at 8:19 am | Reply
  4. Anonymous P@TRI0T (S3kshuN8)


    Please disregard this post. It is in the form of a question.

    July 11, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  5. Anonymous P@TRI0T (S3kshuN8)

    Apparently my question remains unanswered...

    July 14, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Reply
  6. Anonymous P@TRI0T (S3kshuN8)

    ...just keeping it REAL...

    Anybody still watching this OLD thread ????

    July 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply

    Yes, some of the laggers are still getting around and reading this thread; very civil. Very good comments, from everyone. Discussed in the manner of our of the founding fathers, When looking at the representation of the upper house, and relating it to the representation of the number of people in one state versus another in being unfair, the point is missed that it gives each state the same representation in the Senate regardless of population. After all, the United States is a democratic republic, we all equally (i.e. democratically) give our vote for congressmen, senators and electoral college to represent us...The Rebublic.

    August 27, 2011 at 6:04 am | Reply
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