Symposium on Federal and State Methods of Repressing Political Activism, February 21, 1987


I want to read something about the Constitution that comes from two different publications saying exactly the same thing. While we’re going to be talking about the Federal Constitution as a great document with high-sounding phrases, two men, a continent apart, writing almost at the same time, have discussed its origins. One is E.L. Doctorow in The Nation, in an article entitled, “A Citizen Reads the Constitution;” the other is a relatively unknown but marvelous writer by the name of John Sanford, 82 1/2 years old and living in Santa Barbara, California, who went to this university under his real name of Julian Shapiro and who is a critic of all of the excesses of America.

In describing the people who created the Constitution in a book called The Color of the Air, Sanford writes the following:

There were fifty-six signers, (and these were some of the same people who signed ‘The Declaration’ as well) all of them Gents: fourteen lawyers (among them a part-time moneylender), thirteen jurists (one a musician, a writer of airy and dainty songs), eleven merchants (i.e. smugglers), eight farmers (two being Tidewater rubes by the name of Lee), four physicians, a pair of soldiers, an ironmonger, a publisher, a politician, and the President of Princeton. The Mob did not sign. The sailmakers, the cartwrights and the glassblowers, the grooms, the tapsters, the drovers and drayman-none such signed. The barbers, the fiddlers, the Wandering Jews, the horse-copers, the hatters and glovers, and those that stomped the high road with or without their scarlet letters–none of these signed, none made a mark. Only Gents wrote their John Hancocks, not cheap Jacks, not swabs or sweeps or keepers of an ordinary, not joiners or tinkers or catchers of rats at a penny a pound. That kind had lives, of course, but no fortunes, and therefore no sacred honor. The nobodies thus were missing–the mercer, the chandler, the hanger-on, the muff. To the City of Brotherly Love, no rough fellow, no greenhorn went, none but the Gents.

Mr. Doctorow, in his analysis of the Constitution, says the following:

And I reflect now in conclusion, that this is what brought the people into the streets in Philadelphia 200 years ago. Those wheelwrights and coach builders and ribbon and fringe weavers. The idea, the belief, the faith that America was unprecedented. I like to think in this year of bicentennial celebration that the prevailing image will beof those plain people, taking to the streets. Those people with only their wits and their skills to lead them through their lives. Forming their processions, the wheelwrights and ribbon makers, the railroad porters and coalminers, the garment workers, the steel workers, the automobile workers, the telephone operators, the air traffic controllers, the farmworkers, the computer programmers, and, one hopes, the printers, stationers, and booksellers too.

You see how alike these are, and I’m sure that those two men do not know each other and were writing independently of each other, yet say much the same thing. That the Constitution may have been created by Gents but was meant, or should be meant, for all of those non-gents, the Mob, as Mr. Sanford calls them, who are in the streets or should be in the streets. That’s a preface, I think, to any discussion about the rise and fall of the American Constitution. I guess we all realize that it was framed by Gents; it was filledwith compromises that were palatable to some of the Gents, such as making Blacks 3/5 of Whites and so on, and yet it should be the Constitution of those who didn’t meet in Philadelphia, who didn’t hold the reins of government eventually, who weren’t the power brokers, but the millwrights and the tele- phone operators and all the rest about whom Mssrs. Doctorow and Sanford are talking. With that as a backdrop, I would like to get to what I prepared because I thought that this occasion was more than worthy of putting some- thing down on paper and not the delivery of glib, off-the-cuff remarks. I call it the rise and fall of the American Constitution.

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