A Tough Act to Follow

April 27th, 2007

If the topic - Origins of U.S. Constitutionalism - didn't guarantee a crowd, the speaker sure did. Historian Gordon Wood, who comes as close as Brown professors get to being a movie star (his work was the subject of a classic bar-room argument in the movie Good Will Hunting), drew nearly 600 students and colleagues to the first in a series of lectures called Constitutional Debates, sponsored by the provost's office.

In real life, Wood is the author of numerous books, including The Making of the Constitution and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Radicalism of the American Revolution. Newt Gingrich once cited Wood as his favorite historian, and his classes are the stuff of myth.

"We all know why we're here," he began sardonically, noting that the timing of his speech put Brown in compliance with a new federal requirement that all institutions receiving federal funds mark Constitution Day with some relevant activity. Still, events in Washington gave the topic particular significance: confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts were under way that week, and the Constitution was on many people's minds.

With the global spread of democracy, especially in the last thirty years, the once radical notion of a written constitution has become old hat, Wood said (Brown is unusual, he said, in offering a Constitutional history class to undergraduates). Ideas like separation of powers and judicial review are no longer rare.

"Even our separation of church and state has spread," he said. And federalism is so much copied that the United States "may be the most centralized" of today's democracies."

The early Americans wanted actual, not virtual, representation in their new government. They insisted that sovereignty remain with the people, with "government holding bits of power for the people temporarily."

Wood stressed that point repeatedly, noting that "We used to be known for our obsession with rights," and later observing that "mistrust lies at the heart of democracy." The founders put the U.S. Constitution on paper in order to circumscribe government's powers and avoid the corruption of the English constitutional system. "They believed the principal threat to the people's rights was the prerogative power of the king," he said, observing that in the U.S. the president has resumed taking some of those powers back. "Congress hasn't declared war since 1942," he noted.

Asked about judicial review after his lecture, Wood dryly observed that first liberals wanted an expanded role for the judiciary and once they got their wish, conservatives wanted it. "The Court has gained enormous power over the past 100 years," he said. "I don't know if you want to call it usurpation or transformation." Politicians, he quipped, are "more than happy to have judges take on abortion."

To a query about the electoral college, he began, "Nobody intended the electoral college to work the way it has. They didn't anticipate political parties or the role of the media . . . " He elaborated a bit, then seemed to throw in the towel. "History leaves this garbage," he concluded.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
November / December 2005