The Nation’s Founders, Michael J. Fox and Other Letters to the Editor

We the People

To the Editor:

Richard Stengel concludes his thoughtful review of Joseph Ellis’s and Gordon Wood’s new books (Oct. 10) by suggesting not only that it is past time to confront in full the “terrible defect” of American constitutionalism, namely slavery, but also that the Constitution “contains the cure for democracy’s wrongs.”

Article V sets out the process for constitutional amendment. But save for the bizarre 27th Amendment, originally proposed in 1789 and declared ratified in 1992, there has been no truly serious attempt to confront any of our constitutional defects in the full half-century since the 26th Amendment was added to the Constitution.

It is telling that Barack Obama, the former president of The Harvard Law Review and professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, never once in his eight years as president offered a single illuminating observation about the Constitution. Compare this to the election of 1912, when there were three genuine constitutional reformers — Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs — running against the most able defender of the Old Order, William Howard Taft. Taft, of course, was trounced, and that decade saw four important additions to the Constitution.

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    Stengel may be aware of Article V, but he is part of an ever-declining minority that really takes it seriously. And, of course, even were we to have a genuine national conversation about constitutional amendment, there would still be the hurdle of getting the approval of at least 75 state legislatures in 38 of the states, leaving us entirely vulnerable to the refusal of separate legislative houses in 13 states.

    Sanford Levinson
    Brookline, Mass.

    The writer is a professor at the University of Texas Law School.

    To the Editor:

    Richard Stengel’s review of the new Wood and Ellis histories of our constitutional beginnings suggests that the authors believe the founders’ deepest failure was not having purged slavery. In a 2019 Times Magazine interview, Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” said that “the great evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude: It was the ideology of white supremacy, in which people persuaded themselves that Black people aren’t fully human.”

    Perhaps we should begin such discussions of slavery by specifying which aspect we are talking about, involuntary servitude or racism. Involuntary servitude, in theory, could have been dealt with as it was — for example, by limiting the international slave trade. But to suggest that racism could have been dealt with legislatively is in denial of our subsequent history, including nearly 100 years of Jim Crow apartheid. As Stevenson said, slavery did not end; it just evolved. I would suggest that racism is still evolving.

    Harwood S. Nichols
    Hilton Head Island, S.C.

    To the Editor:

    In his otherwise excellent review of recent books by Ellis and Wood, Richard Stengel overstates the aims of the founders when he declares that their paramount concern was “the creation of a nation.” The word “nation” did not appear in the Constitution they wrote and ratified. To Americans of that time, “nation” smacked of the annihilation of individual states and their consolidation into a centralized whole.

    Given that ratification of the Constitution required states to consent to reductions in their own powers, it was a term to be avoided. Many historians maintain that it took a civil war to change the United States from a “union” into a “nation,” though events of recent years have called even that argument into question.

    Victor W. Henningsen
    Thetford Center, Vt.

    The Whole Picture

    To the Editor:

    I’ve admired Michael J. Fox as a comedian ever since “Family Ties” aired, and even more so as an advocate for Parkinson’s research. I didn’t realize what an intelligent and eloquent writer he is, though, until his review of Jan Grue’s “I Live a Life Like Yours” (Sept. 19). I’ll be reading Grue’s memoir to try to understand disability better, in large part due to Fox’s thoughtful — and thought-provoking — words.

    It also struck me that Grue suffers from spinal muscular atrophy; someone close to me discovered when she was pregnant that she had the gene for that condition. Her husband did not carry the gene, so their child was born healthy. Reading this review, I’m thankful for their healthy child, but also realize that the disease would have been a part of their child, but would not have defined their child. It shouldn’t take a book or review to remind us, but we need to focus on the person, not on the person’s so-called limits.

    Donna Marie Merritt
    Watertown, Conn.

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