Dean of the Faculty, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Professor of Political Science
To ratify. To consent. To lend agreement to a contract, constitution, or arrangement that will, from that moment forward, profoundly impact both the ratifier and the community.
We most commonly think of ratification as a relic of the United States’ constitutional past. Ratifying conventions were formed in the late eighteenth century to decide on the merits of the newly drafted US Constitution. The debates that ensued were some of the most spirited, and important, in the country’s history. That period of constitutional ratification can and should be seen as an epic drama, one that in many ways changed the nature of popular government forever.
And yet the statesmen who framed and eventually endorsed the US Constitution understood that the principle of ratification was to be an ongoing enterprise—an enduring project that was not fixed at a particular moment in time. Every generation has a responsibility to interrogate its relationship with the Constitution; every generation can and should ratify the text. Indeed, to ratify, they said, is to take personal responsibility regardless of whether one is participating in a formal convention or not. To own. To engage individually with the meaning and purpose of the collective constitutional agreement. The moment of ratification is an intimate, defining moment.
Contemporary Americans have largely forgotten, or perhaps foolishly ignored, the intimacy of ratification. We rarely contemplate our private bonds with the Constitution. We don’t regularly ask ourselves why (and if) we endorse the spirit and meaning of the United States’ fundamental law. We have relegated the power of ratification to our dead ancestors.
Recently, though, art has tried to carry the torch of constitutional ratification. Museums and objects have become the best lens through which we contemplate our personal association with the constitutional document. At the National Archives in Washington the original Constitution and Bill of Rights are on permanent display. The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia—a museum dedicated entirely to the Constitution and its amendments—cleverly invites visitors to engage in the tangible process of ratification. In Signers’ Hall, visitors are asked to reflect on the Constitution and to “sign” it—to ratify it—based on private reflection. Some sign the book signifying their support for the Constitution; others sign a different book that signifies a rejection of the text. For many patrons of the museum it can be an emotionally powerful moment.
Contemplating Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler’s Constitution on Tour can be equally powerful. And equally emotional. To celebrate the bicentennial of the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1991, and in response to a nationwide tour of the document, the artists designed a provocation. They sandblasted and painted the entire Constitution and its emendations onto a thin slab of marble and then proceeded to destroy the pristine text—the sacred text—into small shards. Offensive? Perhaps. Thought provoking? Definitely. The image of a destroyed constitutional document, much like that of a burned flag, asks the viewer to contemplate her relationship with the American body politic. It probes the very essence of constitutional meaning. It makes us think about whether we want to take the small shards and piece them together—to reconstitute the Constitution; whether, in this period of staggering political discord and strife, we want to return to the country’s guiding principles—liberty, equality, and democracy; and, ultimately, whether we have the courage to recommit to America’s blessed constitutional values. To ratify.