Reflections on Three Constitutions

The central difficulty in uniting sovereign Unions is to persuade nations of differing sizes and history, to agree to a uniform set of basic principles; one size seldom fits all. The double-voting solution, proposed by John Dickinson, was a major refinement of the principle of majority rule, allowing small states to co-exist with big ones without being overwhelmed. It slows agreement, but it strengthens the product.

This book describes how America organized thirteen independent republics into a unified republic, which (except for one major misstep of civil war) has remained intact for two centuries. The Constitution of 1787 learned a great deal from the mistakes of the evolving 1776-81 Articles of Confederation, and the European Union now struggles under difficult economic circumstances to derive what it usefully can from the combined insights of the two American Constitutions, applied to unique European circumstances. Obviously, Europe must look to other sources as well, but some American ideas are worth considering for whether they have universal value.

American unification was voluntarily and peacefully achieved, although the Union was only preserved by fighting a civil war over slavery ethics and economics. In the long process of adjustment, the United States noticed uneasily how seldom other willing nations matched its continued unification, though many attempted it. The American Union has since grown from thirteen to fifty subordinate states more or less peaceably, although a couple of possessions were permitted to withdraw. The reasons underlying this creditable record remain disputed, so Americans are notoriously reluctant to contemplate even minor changes in the rules. Accused of exceptionalism, we actually are a little uncertain we could do it again. The Constitution was a written contract, defining much more what America and its rulers expected of each other, than traditional constitutions. Ancient national constitutions tended to be attempts at defining national culture more than stating national axioms. It was hard to say at the beginning, what would become seen as an important innovation, what would be just a variation of style.

This book attempts a few innovations, itself. Its content attempts to follow the design of the Directed Studies Course of Yale University, developed by David Kagan, in which a subject is examined through mixing several academic disciplines. In this case they are history, literature, and computer composition. If I were a few years younger, it might become a component of a longer history of Philadelphia, a city which placed a unique stamp on America. It is also a book which leans heavily on the new powers of the electronic computer, allowing the author to control most of the functions which traditionally have been ceded to other disciplines of a publishing house. Since blended disciplines are more effective when unobtrusive, technical intricacies of electronic publishing are to be published separately. Students of electronics may wish to debate in another forum how computer advances, while surely able to destroy print publishing, must stretch considerably further before they can replace it. My older son, George Ross Fisher IV, is the visionary of program approaches invisibly utilized in the body of the present book.

And finally let me doff my cap to a man I wish I had the longevity to emulate, but concluded that no one has enough longevity to expand his approach to long stretches of history. Leopold von Ranke was widely acclaimed as the greatest historian of his day (1795- 1886), and by some has even been called the "father of modern source-based history". Reading histories written during his lifetime, I appreciate his impatience with careless history derived from tertiary sources, or even from conjecture and hearsay. Compared with Herodotus or Thucydides, or Edward Gibbon, history was certainly in decline during von Ranke's time, although it is not clear that inaccessibility of primary sources was the main cause. By insisting "No documents, No history", however, von Ranke sets an unattainable standard for those like me who wish to start a history career well past the age of eighty. Von Ranke himself began a 9-volume world history at the age of eighty-one, and almost completed it. Unfortunately, I had no formal training in writing history, and am surrounded by more entertainments and distractions than were available in the Nineteenth century. Nevertheless, secondary history sources are now of much higher quality than Ranke found them, and electronic easy access greatly extends everyone's reach to them. I am particularly impressed by the fact-finding of Wikipedia, and see no reason not to recognize it as a mostly dependable source. With electronic bibliographies available today, and accepting their mixed error content on the primary level, one can assemble by cross-checking a documentation approaching von Ranke's standards, ultimately reflecting the work of vastly more contributors. Since my contemplated scope of review from William Penn to Grace Kelly, is probably greater than my lifespan, I plan to leave a little money in my estate to complete essential parts of it without putting a burden on my family. History is never complete, but with practice it is possible to skirt matters which are dubious, or excise them when they surface. Everything else rests on opinion, and I take full responsibility for a lifetime of contrarian opinions, openly expressed. The critics of Leopold von Ranke debated whether his strange expression in German ("wie es eigentlich gewesen ist") was intended to mean he tried to present only events that really happened, or whether he only sought to avoid unsupported abstractions. In our empowered but less romantic era, such issues seem no less desirable, but somehow less important.



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