Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Elizabeth Beaumont's "The Civic Constitution"

Elizabeth Beaumont is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, where she focuses on civic engagement, constitutionalism, and democracy.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Civic Constitution: Civic Visions and Struggles in the Path toward Constitutional Democracy, and reported the following:
The Civic Constitution explores some of the vivid ways that engaged citizens and civic groups have debated and influenced the U.S. Constitution. Page 99 drops us in the 18th century and heated arguments over ratification. Today, it is easy to imagine that there was widespread support for a new governing framework in 1789. But here we begin to see how much public disagreement there was – and how important critics’ competing views and demands were for the Constitution’s initial fate. We glimpse examples of popular or civic constitutionalism – ordinary citizens’ participation in constitutional interpretation, debate, and change – that flowed through newspapers, town meetings, petitions, and other civic venues during this critical juncture:
The spectrum of popular sentiments expressed toward the proposed constitution ranged from effusive praise to outright, angry rejection and nearly every position in between. Some groups of citizens sent positive evaluations and messages endorsing ratification to their conventions. In Delaware, for example, one group’s petition endorsed ratification because this would lead to “peace, stability, efficacy, and prosperity in all the confederate states.” In Boston, nearly four hundred mechanics and tradesmen met at a tavern to adopt pro-ratification resolutions just before Massachusetts’ convention.

But a great many of the messages citizens sent to their conventions offered mixed or qualified endorsements of the governing plan by noting that they did not find it perfect, but would endorse it. Some in Pennsylvania said it was not “free from all imperfection,” but “they consider it as the most perfect that could be expected.” Others offered similarly qualified endorsement. In Virginia, for instance, a county meeting announced favoring ratification because they took the pragmatic view that the question ought not to be “is this plan perfect?” but “is it an improvement on our present system?”

At other local meetings, civic groups issued explicit lists of criticisms, including calls for amendment or rejection. These were sometimes short and general messages; sometimes very long and specific evaluations and requests…
Strangely, the influence of such civic disputes in creating an uneven and nearly unsuccessful ratifying process and an ambivalent and limited stamp of public approval is largely ignored. Indeed, most conventional studies convey a shrunken, skewed understanding of citizens’ roles in constitutional politics.

The Civic Constitution challenges this by traveling across the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century to illuminate the constitutional visions and struggles of the broad swath of revolutionaries who motivated the Declaration of Independence and the first state constitutions; the streams of critics and antifederalists who influenced the national Constitution and Bill of Rights; the abolitionists who paved the way for the Reconstruction Amendments; and the suffragists whose battles provoked the Nineteenth Amendment.

I argue that these groups were so important for initiating fundamental constitutional texts and commitments – such as free speech, equal protection of the laws, uniform national rights, and universal suffrage -- that they should be recognized as civic founders or co-founders of the Constitution. Through soapbox speeches, mass petitions, sermons and boycotts, dramatic protests and civil disobedience, these men and women worked to redefine fundamental law. Challenging established authority, they advocated vital new understandings of popular self-governance, rights and liberties, and citizenship itself. Indeed, though their roles have long been neglected, these civic reformers shaped the legal text and terms of modern constitutionalism and civic membership.

By shifting our focus to citizens’ ideas and actions, I hope to provide greater understanding of American constitutionalism, civic life, and democracy itself. But more than simply revealing the role of people and civic groups in past constitutional conflicts, The Civic Constitution provides rich groundwork for understanding important controversies of our own era.
Learn more about The Civic Constitution at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue