The approaching bicentennial celebrations of the signing of the Constitution in 1787 and its ratification by the states in 1788, followed by that of the Bill of Rights in 1791, afford an opportunity to reflect upon the written Constitution of the United States and its relationship to the structure of American government. Appearing just prior to the bicentennial celebration, A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture is a provocative study of the symbolic role which the Constitution has played in American culture. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Michael Kammen has brought together an exciting variety of materials from popular culture, many of which are examined for the first time in this historical study of American constitutionalism.
The title of this book is borrowed from a speech which James Russell Lowell made to the Reform Club of New York in 1888. Lowell commented that “after our Constitution got fairly into working order it really seemed as if we had invented a machine that would go of itself, and this begot a faith in our luck which even the civil war itself but momentarily disturbed.” Lowell regarded this faith in luck as so naïve as to verge upon irresponsibility, a concern that Kammen echoes.
Analyzing the metaphors for the Constitution frequently used in political speeches, Kammen documents the shift in the popular consciousness from a mechanistic view of the Constitution as a machine or instrument to images that emphasize its organic potential. Responding to the increased attention to evolutionary theory, Woodrow Wilson explained the implications of this organic view of the Constitution: “Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of life, not of mechanics; it must develop. All that progressives ask or desire is permission—in an era when ’development,’ ’evolution,’ is the scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”
To illustrate the astonishing diversity of opinion which has existed concerning the Constitution, Kammen calls attention to the swings in American attitudes toward the unwritten British constitution. Legal historians have taken diametrically opposed positions on the issue of British influence on the American Constitution. In number fourteen of The Federalist Papers, James Madison had asserted that the American political system was an entirely new invention without a model. Opponents of this view emphasized the contribution of British common law to the American legal system.
Yet another controversy arose over whether the American Constitution was suddenly created or whether it developed slowly out of Colonial experience. In 1878, William E. Gladstone, leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament, described the British constitution as an organic growth developing out of history and the American Constitution as “a thing made,” “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Legal scholars responded with arguments asserting the slow, organic development of the American Constitution. Suggestions that the written American Constitution might be more stable in contrast to the flexible unwritten constitution of the British inspired numerous assertions of the flexibility of the American political system. These debates over British and American constitutionalism nourished the field of legal history.
A cult of the Constitution seems already to have existed by the time of the Civil War. Both Southerners and Northerners claimed to be acting in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution. The publication of The Papers of James Madison in 1840 indicated that those who framed the Constitution had compromised over the slavery question. Although, initially, the most militant abolitionists were willing to censure the Constitution for safeguarding slavery, by the end of the Civil War the issue of human rights had been subordinated to the...
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