Michael Kammen's a Machine That Would Go of Itself the Constitution in American Culture 1986 Research Proposal

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Michael Kammen's a Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986)

Kammen, Michael. A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture.

New York: Knopf, 1986.

In the 21st century the U.S. Constitution is often presented as a sacred document by both liberals and conservatives. This was seen in the recent controversy over the confirmation of the first female Latina justice, Sonya Sotomayor. Conservatives painted Sotomayor as an activist judge who had little regard for the Founding Father's original intentions; liberals suggested that adding Sotomayor to the Supreme Court would fulfill the document's implied promise of liberty and justice for all. In his 1986 book, A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture Cornell professor of American history Michael Kammen argues such interpretations are culturally and historically constructed. They are not ideas that the Founding Fathers wove into the document at its birth.

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Over the course of his book, which uses popular culture as well as Supreme Court decisions, Kammen demonstrates that the relationship between the Constitution and the men who fulfilled their roles of governors and justices of the great nation of America has been complicated, divisive and contradictory in a way that many of us might like to forget. By examining the intellectual history of how the Constitution has been viewed in American culture, Kammen hopes to offer a more realistic portrait of the document. Kammen gives particular attention to the metaphors that have been used to describe the Constitution, which act as a kind of Rorschach blot of how Americans see the nation.

TOPIC: Research Proposal on Michael Kammen's a Machine That Would Go of Itself the Constitution in American Culture 1986 Assignment

The Constitution has been seen as an instrument of law, an anchor of stability, and a great machine that operates independently of the men who run our government (Kammen 15-17). Today, the idea of the Constitution as a living document has grown more popular, but this image is also infused with the concept of the Constitution as 'sacred' and is a kind of secular, holy writ. The Constitution grows organically, in the 'living' document metaphor, in perfect harmony with the environment, independent of human agency and biases (Kammen 18). An excellent example of how the actual enactment and enforcement capacity of the Constitution is different than the idea of the Constitution is manifest in President Andrew Jackson's words regarding a Supreme Court order in favor of Indian rights that undercut Jackson's plans for Western expansion and settlement. Jackson famously proclaimed: "[Chief Justice] John Marshall has given his decision, now let him enforce it" (Rosen 2007). Jackson believed had the almighty power of Commander in Chief and he new Supreme Court had no military capacity at all. Jackson envisioned the role of the Chief Executive as all-powerful in its interpretive capacity of the Constitution, because the president was directly elected by the people and had the military power to protect the people, in contrast to the unelected Supreme Court. The notion of balance of powers meant little to Jackson -- there was no perfect interpretation of the Constitution beyond his needs as President.

The title A Machine That Would Go of Itself is deeply ironic. Clearly the Constitution does not 'go of itself' or even 'grow by itself.' It reflects the perspective of the times and the man or woman doing the interpretation. Of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so deeply respected by the public today in the wake of the current financial crisis, did not succeed in his scheme to expand the numbers of the court to fulfill his legislative agenda. But his temptation to do so shows the frustration inherent in the relationships outlined in the constitution between the different branches: the Court's determination to declare Roosevelt's legislative policy invalid, Roosevelt feared, would bring down the nation in the grip of economic privation and prevented him from doing his elected duty. The fact that the American public revolted at Roosevelt's attempt to do so, despite the Great Depression shows the how the power of the 'sacredness' of the document had greater sway over the public at the time than it did during the Jacksonian era rather than some difference the American public newly perceived in the document (Kammen 199-200).

Constitutional interpretations have been famously checkered throughout the nation's history, particularly regarding slavery. Plessey v. Ferguson permitted segregation by race, Brown v. Board of Education found the notion of 'separate but equal' to be a fiction. And the Supreme Court even declared that men could be property in its Dred Scott ruling (Kammen 104). Pro-slavery advocates could decry the abolitionists' call for a strong union, yet use the Court's constitutional decisions to defend themselves in the antebellum era. The Constitution has been a friend of proponents of civil rights during the 1950s and a foe during earlier eras. It has invalidated progressive legislation as well as attempts by blacks to secure their rights. All of these examples show that Constitutional interpretations do not have a linear legacy in terms of their view of civil liberties.

Kammen published the first edition his book during the height of the Reagan Administration's power, when the Administration was attempting to appoint right-wing conservatives that supported its anti-abortion agenda to the Court, in the wake of several liberal justices' resignations. Conservatives were defending Reagan's actions on the grounds of 'strict constructionalism,' or the idea that the conservatives were 'taking back' the Constitution after decades of Supreme Court decisions had given criminals, blacks, women, and other marginalized groups more secure guarantees of their civil rights. But the relationship between the Constitution and the nation has an ever-shifting one. Even Jefferson himself believed the document would be refashioned with every succeeding generation. The Founding Father's original intention may have been closer to the liberal 'organic' model -- or they may have had no clear future 'intention' at all, beyond stabilizing the fragile nation.

The Founding Fathers, Kammen believes, would be surprised that only relatively few additional amendments have been added to the original Bill of Rights. He wishes to free his readers from the idea that there is a pure past American must return to in the way the Constitution is interpreted (Kammen xi). Kammen's project is to destabilize the notion many Americans have that the Constitution is a sacred and static document, envisioned by the Founders as a perfect watch that never stops ticking in perfect time. Americans have a folk understanding of the Constitution that is more cliche than fact.

The U.S. government has itself perpetuated such an understanding at times. One of the delights of Kammen's book is that he delves into unusual source material, such as the history immigrants are required to learn to become naturalized U.S. citizens. A cram book from the 1930s for the naturalization exam states that it is illegal to support communism and anarchy -- according to the Constitution (Kammen 241). Even the current U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has made comments that support a conception of the document as holy writ, calling himself a perfect 'umpire' of justice rather than someone who needs to make formal decisions that have their origin in the human mind, outside of the supposedly clear guidance of the document. Roberts' image is part of a cultural history of interpretation, not an idea woven into the document. Kammen decries such cultish attitudes that have grown up around the Constitution. Today, the Constitution is often displayed like a Bible or a sacred document, as if the paper it is written is more important than the enforcement of the rights written in ink. This cult of constitutionalism has created "a set of values, a range of options, and a means of resolving conflicts within a framework of consensus" that "supplied stability and continuity to a degree the framers could barely have imagined" but a continuity that is our… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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