Ken Masugi, with his typically thoughtful insight, has discovered a number of "progressive" elements at the new National Constitution Center. He is, of course, correct in his bill of particulars, but wrong, I think, on the overall effect of the Constitution Center, which I found quite praiseworthy, and quite successful at furthering the NCC’s express mission of educating citizens in the principles of the American Founding.
The centerpiece of the NCC is, of course, the DeVos theatre and the multi-media commemoration to the Constitution presented there. Most striking, in an age when the principles of the Declaration of Independence have been rejected by many across the political spectrum, the presentation begins with the self-evident truths of the Declaration. (The acknowledgement of the Declaration actually begins even earlier. The NCC was dedicated on July 4, and the price of admission is $17.76, not $17.87). From the very first moment, then, the Constitution is put into its proper context, as a means to defend the unalienable rights of the people.
Even the discussion of slavery is handled well. Not the tripe that has occupied our civics textbooks for a generation or more (asserting that the Declaration only applied to white European males), the moderator, a booming-voiced black man standing in a spotlight center stage, reminds us that the Declaration’s proposition of equality applied to all human beings, something he highlights by pointing to several members of the audience and finally to himself.
This point is not lost when he addressed the slave clauses of the Constitution itself. The moderator describes how impossible it would have been for the founders to tackle both the task of building a new nation of eliminating slavery at the same time, points out that the Constitution actually never mentions the word "slavery," and then adds: "Although we know the Declaration’s vision did not include all people," no nation had ever taken the step toward equality that we had taken. A perfect description? Not quite--better to have said that the vision did include all people. But it is much better than one might have expected. And the multi-media presentation then turns to Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., both making clear that the purpose of the Constitution is to fulfil the principles of the Declaration of Independence. This, my friends, is deserving of great praise, and one cannot help but be moved -- to better citizenship.
True, following this centerpiece of the program, one files out to a rotunda that has all the flaws Masugi points out. And I could add a few more. There are multiple copies of Machiavelli’s Prince on a bookshelf display, for example, and no Aristotle or Cicero. And Ben Stein is heard to say that there is a rights aura--rights given to us by the Constitution. Ugh. But I don’t think the main vice Masugi describes is a vice at all. It is not a vice that people think the defense of their Constitution is in their own hands. So here is my main disagreement with Ken: By inviting people to participate in the debate, Masugi takes from that the notion of living constitutionalism, not the Declaration’s consent of the governed. It is healthy when the people re-engage their elected officials (and their judicial officers) about the meaning of the Constitution, because the true purpose of "Progressivism" was to substitute elite judgment for the will of the people. This Center -- even the middle section -- helps remind us all of that obligation.
Finally, let me just add a reverse straussian interpretation of sorts. After leaving the "progressive" middle of the tour, one does indeed enter into the room of the signers. It is a powerful room, filled with giants, men of principle. The heros at the beginning, and those at the end, are the powerful images one takes away from the National Constitution Center. The modern paeons in the middle, in unstraussian fashion, are lost to the great accomplishments of these great men. That is the take-away for citizens. And it is a good thing.