Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Rare as a Mickey Mantle or a James Madison

Here's a quick quiz. Of the following six men, which three signed the United States Constitution in 1787 and which three played for the New York Yankees in 1961: Mickey Mantle, James Madison, George Washington, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Benjamin Franklin?

Do you REALLY need for me to provide the answer? Probably not, unless you're REALLY not smarter than a fifth grader.

Okay, let's try it this way. Of the following six men, which three signed the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and which played for the New York Yankees in 1961: William Few, David Brearley, Nicholas Gilman, Artemus Ditmar, James Coates, and Robert Hale.

Now it's not so easy, is it? For the record, in the second question the first three men signed the Constitution, the last three wore the pinstripes. (I modified the Yankee first names, by the way, to prevent that from being a giveaway. Ditmar, Coates, and Hale are listed on the roster as Art, Jim, and Bob, respectively. Wouldn't it have been something if Few had signed the Constitution "Bill Few"? Or better yet, "Willie Few"?)

This little bit of bizarrely trivial trivia was inspired by a recent column by Phyllis Schlafly, a scathing review of Larry J. Sabato's new book A More Perfect Constitution: http://www.townhall.com/columnists/PhyllisSchlafly/2007/11/19/no_need_to_tinker_with_the_constitution
Schlafly takes issue with many of Sabato's proposed Constitutional changes. I'm not going to comment on Sabato's particular suggestions or Schlafly's criticisms of them, because I haven't read the book. It's likely I won't, either, since as former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter observed, time is an outrageous thief of one's energy and there are still a lot of books I'd like to read on the Constitution as it is before I consider reading those on the Constitution as it might be.

What I do want to dwell on a bit, however, is the odd penultimate paragraph of Schlafly's essay:

"The worst of all Sabato's proposals is to call for a new constitutional convention that would scrap our present Constitution and start over from a clean slate. We don't see any James Madisons, George Washingtons or Ben Franklins around today, and we're mighty worried about the men who think they are capable of rewriting our Constitution."

Notice she didn't write: "We don't see many William Fews, David Brearleys, or Nicholas Gilmans around today, and we're mighty worried about the men who think they are capable of rewriting our Constitution." But in point of fact, at any walk of life, whether it's playing baseball or writing Constitutions, and at time in history--1787, 1961, or 2008--there are always more Nicholas Gilmans than James Madisons, more Art Ditmars than Mickey Mantles, and it's silly to take the attitude that exceptional individuals is ever the norm.

Where our Constitution is concerned, an informal way of demonstrating my point is simply to look at the names of the thirty-nine men who signed the Constitution and ask how many of them (or how few, actually) are household words. Besides Washington, Franklin, and Madison, already mentioned, I think there is only one other guy that a typical person of common intelligence could be expected to have heard of--Alexander Hamilton. Other than that--well, the three signers from North Carolina were William Blount, Richard Dobbs Spaight, and Hugh Williamson. I can't recall seeing any of them on U.S. currency.

A more formal means of showing that the Constitutional convention wasn't an all-star team is to look at the biographical sketches of the delegates in Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship's The Constitutional Convention: A Narrative History from the Notes of James Madison (New York: Modern Library Classics, 2005--this is an essential book for anyone with a serious interest in the Constitution, by the way). These sketches are loaded with comments like "Not a major figure at the Constitutional Convention" (Abraham Baldwin, William Leigh Pierce), "... played only a minor role at the Constitutional Convention" (Jacob Broom, Thomas Fitzsimons), "... contributed little to the Constitutional Convention" (James McHenry), and "... played only a small role" (Thomas Mifflin)."My favorite comment by Larson and Winship is on George Clymer: "Clymer was a respected and conscientious delegate at the Constitutional Convention, but spoke rarely." That's not much different than saying "Bob Uecker was a respected baseball player who made every team bus and never broke curfew, but he hit rarely."

Carol Berkin's book A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Books, 2002) also has biographical sketches, and as with Larson and Winship's book, there are a number of remarks such as this one on Richard Bassett, "At the Philadelphia convention, he was virtually invisible, saying nothing and serving on no committees" (p. 234). Charles A. Beard sums it up nicely: "There were in all fifty-five members of the Convention who were present at some of its meetings. Of these at least one-third took little or no part in the proceedings or were of little weight or were extensively absent" (The Supreme Court and the Constitution (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., p. 47).

All in all, I think it's pretty clear that the typical delegate at the Constitutional Convention was more of a Richard Bassett than a James Madison.

Having hopefully made my point, let me add quickly that we shouldn't confuse obscurity deserved with that undeserved . There were men, after all, who signed the Constitution and contributed a great deal, but they're largely forgotten anyway, in much the same way that Goose Goslin was a great ballplayer, but he's just not as well remembered as Babe Ruth is. (Sorry, I'm sticking with the baseball analogy until the end.) A good example is Delaware delegate John Dickinson. If you read Forrest McDonald's book Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 1985) you may come away thinking Dickinson was, in fact, far more influential on the shape our Constitution took than the much better known James Madison. (McDonald even calls the idea that Madison is the Father of the Constitution a myth, p. 205).

But even throwing men like John Dickinson into the picture, it's hard to argue with Charles Beard's conclusion that of the fifty-five delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention there were only about twenty-five--fewer than half--who really mattered much. The Yankees were going to win the pennant in 1961 with or without Artemus Ditmar and we were going to get the Constitution we got with or without Richard Bassett.

I'm not disputing Phyllis Schlafly's conclusion that the Constitution is fine and we don't need a new one; in fact, I agree with her. But if we had a Constitutional convention in 2008, two hundred years from now people would look back and see the same thing we see today among the 1787 group: a few important men like Madison and Dickinson and a whole boatload of obscure people like Richard Bassett. That's the law of committees: a few folks do most of the important work. It's human nature in the eighteenth century and the twenty-first.

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