Vol. 24 No. 10 (October 2014) pp. 516-518
RE-FRAMERS: 170 ECCENTRIC, VISIONARY, AND PATRIOTIC PROPOSALS TO REWRITE THE U.S. CONSTITUTION by John R. Vile. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-Clio. 2014. 397pp. Cloth $89.00. ISBN: 978-1-61069-733-0.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Griffin, Tulane Law School, email@example.com.
John R. Vile is a respected constitutional scholar at Middle Tennessee State University who has written a number of works on the constitutional amendment process in the United States. This area of inquiry has been somewhat neglected by scholars over the years, but not because of a lack of effort on the part of Professor Vile. He has authored books on the history and theory of constitutional amendment, along with many other works on the U.S. constitutional system.
One of Professor Vile’s more interesting projects has been to examine not only proposals for amending the U.S. Constitution, but sweeping visions that propose to rewrite the whole document. He published an earlier book in 1991, REWRITING THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION, which was an examination of about 40 of the 170 proposals he summarizes in his new book RE-FRAMERS.
RE-FRAMERS is divided into fourteen chapters reviewing such rewriting proposals arranged in chronological order from the Founding to the Obama administration. Most of the chapters summarize proposals to rewrite the Constitution in each historical era. Judging by Vile’s summaries, most proposals have been put forward since the beginning of the twentieth century. Such proposals were apparently few and far between in the early republic and the nineteenth century.
The first two chapters cover proposals to have a constitution for the colonies, including Benjamin Franklin’s well known Albany Plan of Union, a review of the Articles of Confederation, and a short description of the adoption of the Constitution. The review of the 170 proposals to rewrite the Constitution begins in earnest in Chapter 3, from a proposal by Edmund Pendleton to restrict the sort of centralized government advocated by the Federalists to John C. Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities, to a description of the constitution of the Confederacy, to Francis Lieber’s 1865 proposals, some of which resembled the soon forthcoming Fourteenth Amendment.
This diverse set of nineteenth century proposals for reform gives the flavor of the rest of Vile’s book. Each proposal is summarized in roughly three to fifteen paragraphs; making this book more of a reference work. The book contains an occasionally interesting collection of reform ideas, but does not have a strong thesis.
At the same time, I do not wish to downplay the usefulness of having Professor Vile collect a large number of often fugitive and hard to find proposals that show how much effort some Americans have put into the task of imagining ways to improve the Constitution, even if they have been largely ignored. Noted academics such as J. Allen Smith, Charles Merriam (president of the American Political Science Association in 1924-1925 as Vile notes), William Yandell [*517] Elliott and Charles Hardin enter the picture in the twentieth century. But the Captain Ahab of constitutional “re-framers” has to be New Deal “brain trust” member Rexford Tugwell, who worked for decades on forty drafts of a new Constitution, finally published in 1974 in his largely unreadable work THE EMERGING CONSTITUTION.
As the twentieth century rolls on, one theme becomes apparent – the isolated and somewhat idiosyncratic character of reform proposals. Comprehensive attempts to reimagine or rewrite the Constitution have seemingly not figured in the social movements that have sponsored significant constitutional changes, such as the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. These movements have argued for new interpretations of the Constitution, not new amendments or another constitutional convention. A second theme emerges, particularly with reference to works like Tugwell’s – these re-framers often spend so much time working out in minute detail how the Constitution should be changed that they lose track of the more important prior question of why it should be changed, particularly given changing historical circumstances. That is, proposals for rewriting the Constitution often do not seem firmly connected to the world around them. Although I would argue that the burden of proof for constitutional reforms should not be set too high, the authors Vile summarizes frequently assume rather than argue for the necessity of reform.
To be sure, once we arrive in the 1980s, we are arguably in the contemporary era of such proposals. One of the lead proposals to reframe the Constitution in the 1980s was issued by the Committee on the Constitutional System (CCS) a collection of distinguished citizens including Washington attorney Lloyd Cutler, Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and C. Douglas Dillon, a former Secretary of the Treasury. They issued a report worrying about divided government, loss of accountability, and gridlock. Noted political scientist James Sundquist advanced a similar critique at the same time and the CCS proposals received wide notice. Here I think Vile’s account could have been more useful to future scholarship if he had separated proposals, such as CCS, that received at least some public discussion from proposals that were essentially ignored as off the wall. Although I understand Vile’s book is a collection, I think it is useful to alert readers unfamiliar with the 1980s to the relative prominence of some proposals over others.
Another reason to highlight the CCS proposals is that a number of the proposals Vile examines in the 2000s relate to CCS concerns, although other new themes are introduced. So Vile reviews serious critiques of dysfunctional government and proposals for reform put forward by leading scholars such as Robert Dahl, Mary Becker, Cass Sunstein, James Buchanan, Sanford Levinson, Larry J. Sabato, and Lawrence Lessig alongside many other lesser known proposals. There are similarities among the proposals by leading scholars Vile could have usefully developed, but his reference work approach prevents noting the common elements. If anything, the number of well-regarded scholars who advocate substantial constitutional reform seems to be increasing as we move toward the present. At the end of the book, Vile includes an interesting chapter on “Constitutional Reform in Cyberspace,” summarizing proposals that have been made online.
The book concludes with two chapters of summary and analysis. Chapter 13 is devoted to “Constitutional Reform and Constitutional Archetypes.” Vile identifies [*518] fifteen questions that the framers of the Constitution and the re-framers have continued to ask. These questions include whether it should be easier or harder to amend the Constitution, whether the nation should be more or less centralized, should the presidency be stronger or weaker, and whether the nature of the judiciary should be changed. In Chapter 14, “Analysis and Conclusions,” Vile examines briefly topics such as the occasions for reform proposals, the pace of proposals and even the occupations of proponents of change. He notes that the pace of proposals has picked up since the 1960s, which is my own impression as well. Perhaps Americans are more willing to question their constitutional arrangements today than they have been in the past. If so, they will find Vile’s book a valuable resource for their continuing debates.
Tugwell, Rexford G. 1974. THE EMERGING CONSTITUTION. New York, NY: Harper’s Magazine Press.
© Copyright 2014 by the author, Stephen M. Griffin.