As the two hundredth anniversaries of the Constitution’s creation, ratification, and implementation approach in 1987, an outpouring of books describing, explaining, interpreting, and criticizing our governing document can be expected to appear. Of these many books, Michael Kammen’s history of the Constitution’s place in our culture is an essential one.
Do not mistake Kammen’s history for one of the Constitution itself. He does not describe the Constitution or its genesis but rather the place it has had in the American imagination. What have Americans down through the years known about the Constitution and what have they thought of it? What has influenced their knowledge and opinion? Kammen traces the fascinating fluctuations of public interest in the Constitution and speculates as to what causes those fluctuations.
Kammen found that one could only reliably predict a great resurgence of interest in the Constitution in times of controversy, usually caused by Supreme Court decisions and resulting attempts to change the court. In a time when any patriotic anniversary becomes the ultimate in hoopla, it is surprising to discover that past celebrations of Constitutional “birthdays” have sometimes been lackluster and have never met with much popular enthusiasm. It remains to be seen if the bicentennial will change this, since negative aspects of the Constitution have attracted the most attention so far.
This important book also points out our lamentable continuous lack of knowledge of the Constitution; if Kammen gets the audience he deserves, perhaps this lack will be addressed.