The National Constitution Center

Posted: Aug 14, 2005 12:00 AM

PHILADELPHIA -- At one end of Independence Mall, at the historic center of this city where so much of America's foundational history was made with parchment and ink, stands the brick and mortar of Independence Hall. Built between 1732-56, this model of what is called the Georgian style of architecture is where independence was voted and declared, and where, 11 years later, the Constitution was drafted.

     At the other end of the mall sparkles a modernist jewel of America's civic life, the National Constitution Center, a nongovernment institution that opened July 4, 2003, and already has received more than 2 million visitors. It is built of gray Indiana limestone -- it is possible, even in Philadelphia, to have a surfeit of red brick -- and lots of glass. The strikingly different, yet compatible, styles of the 18th century building where the Constitution was drafted and the 21st century building where it is explicated and studied in its third century is an architectural bow to the fact that a constitution ratified by a mostly rural nation of 4 million persons, most   of whom lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater, still suits an urban nation that extends 2,500 miles into the Pacific. 

     The center is a marvel of exhibits, many of them interactive. For example, it uses newspapers and film to give immediacy to such episodes as the Supreme Court holding in 1952 that President Truman exceeded his constitutional powers -- what a thought: there are limits on the commander in chief's powers -- when he seized the nation's steel mills to prevent a labor dispute from disrupting war production. And it shows President Eisenhower, 13 years after sending paratroopers into Normandy, sending them to Central High School in Little Rock.

     Throughout, the center illustrates what professor Felix Frankfurter -- before he became Justice Frankfurter -- was trying to express more than 70 years ago when he said, ``If the Thames is 'liquid history,' the Constitution of the United States is most significantly not a document but a stream of history.'' But it is, first and always, a document that is to be understood, as the greatest American jurist, John Marshall said, ``chiefly from its words.''

     Those words -- which, by the way, do not include ``federal'' or ``democracy'' -- comprise a subtle, complicated structure that nourishes various aims and virtues. So it would be wonderful if some of the liberal groups now gearing up for a histrionic meltdown over the coming debate about the confirmation of John Roberts could spend a few hours at the National Constitution Center. Judging by the river of rhetoric that has flowed in response to the Supreme Court vacancy, contemporary liberalism's narrative of American constitutional history goes something like this:

     On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere galloped through the Massachusetts countryside, and to every Middlesex village and farm went his famous cry of alarm, ``The British are coming! The British are coming to menace the ancient British right to abortion!'' The next morning, by the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled, the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world in defense of the right to abortion. The Articles of Confederation, ratified near the end of the Revolutionary War to Defend Abortion Rights, proved unsatisfactory, so in the summer of 1787, 55 framers gathered here to draft a Constitution. Even though this city was sweltering, the framers kept the windows of Independence Hall closed. Some say that was to keep out the horseflies. Actually, it was to preserve secrecy conducive to calm deliberations about how to craft a more perfect abortion right. The Constitution was ratified after the state conventions vigorously debated the right to abortion. But 74 years later, a great Civil War had to be fought to defend the Constitution against states that would secede from the Union rather than acknowledge that a privacy right to abortion is an emanation loitering in the penumbra of other rights. And so on.

     The exhibits at the National Constitution Center can correct the monomania of some liberals by reminding them that the Constitution expresses the philosophy of natural rights: People have various rights, including and especially the right to property and self-government. These rights are not created by government, which exists to balance and protect the rights in their variety.

     And the center can remind conservatives of an awkward -- to some of them -- fact: The Constitution was written to correct the defects of the Articles of Confederation. That is, to strengthen the federal government.