A Machine That Would Go of Itself

Commentary, February 1987.


Michael Kammen, the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture at Cornell University, describes this book as a study in popular constitutionalism, by which he means “the perceptions and misperceptions, uses and abuses, knowledge and ignorance of ordinary Americans” concerning the Constitution of the United States. As he says, there is a vast literature “in the traditional field of constitutional history–including works on the Supreme Court, biographies of Justices, so-called biographies of the Constitution, and pertinent aspects of American legal history–[but] no one has attempted to describe the place of the Constitution in the public consciousness and symbolic life of the American people.” “How,” he asks, “has the [American] society felt about its frame of government? (When it has felt or thought about it at all.)”

Well, as one might expect, ordinary Americans–“not lawyers, nor judges, nor professors of constitutional law”–are not going to indicate how they “feel” about the Constitution unless they have some particular reason to do so. This becomes clear early in Kammen’s account. Ordinary Americans are not going to engage in debates on the constitutionality of the protective tariff, certainly not debates on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Nor are they going to dispute–not publicly, at least–the relative strengths and weaknesses of the American and British constitutions, or enter into debates with such famous Englishmen as Thomas Babington Macaulay and Walter Bagehot. They are not even likely to mount campaigns to “save” the Constitution, either from Franklin D. Roosevelt or from the Supreme Court.

American Enterprise Institute