These introductory remarks were made before the Rhode Island Supreme Court for the 2013 observance of Constitution Day. Locally, I began such a commemorative event in 2000 at the dedication of my private library at Gale Winds in Bristol.
An edited collection of the 12 lectures delivered from 2000 to 2009 at Gale Winds and at Conley’s Wharf in Providence was published in 2010 by the Rhode Island Publications Society under the title Constitution Day: Reflections by Respected Scholars.
Informal presentations were made at the Fabre Line Club in 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately, the 2013 event, noted here, brought an end to this short-lived tradition. Nonetheless, Constitution Day went out in grand style with Dr. John Kaminiski speaking and presenting his three-volume set of Rhode Island ratification documents to the governor and the High Court as I acted as master of ceremony. Because I was consulting editor on this project, John dedicated the final Rhode Island volume to me.
Chief Justice Paul Suttell, our gracious host
Retired Chief Justice Frank Williams
Governor Lincoln Chafee
Members, present and past, of the federal and state judiciaries
Secretary of State Mollis
Attorney General Kilmartin
Bar Association President Bob Weisberger
Our array of scholars, mayors, deans, lawyers, civic leaders,
sheriffs, and the Supreme Court staff
Dr. John Kaminski, our distinguished editor and presenter.
Welcome to Constitution Day, 2013, held in
the 350th Anniversary year of Rhode Island’s acclaimed Charter of 1663.
I will begin by observing that no area of the law is more historical than constitutional law, so the ratification series is both a historical and a legal project. These volumes can become the Bible for those devotees of original intent and a challenge for those jurists and scholars who rely on evolutionary constitutional construction and assert the importance of nonoriginalist legal precedent–law antedating or not included in the written document we celebrate today.
In my lifetime I have been fortunate to know and interact with several chief justices who appreciated the symbiotic relationship between history and constitutional law.
As a young student at Providence College, I had the good fortune on a few occasions to meet and discuss history with my South Providence neighbor and fellow parishioner Edmund Flynn, Rhode Island’s longest-serving chief justice and the author of a brief history of Rhode Island’s legal system.
My friend, Chief Justice Weisberger, contributed a learned essay to my book Constitution Day, and I was honored to write his biography on the occasion of his retirement as chief justice.
Frank Williams and I are currently working on a history of The Rhode Island Homefront during the Civil War Era to be presented on October 10th.
Chief Justice Paul Suttell, a past president of the Little Compton Historical Society and the Sakonnet Preservation Association, has attended my Constitution Day observances and participated with the induction of his judicial predecessors into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, which I chair.
This proposed sponsorship is especially true if we are to believe the words of a noted Brown University graduate. In 1907, future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, observed “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what the judges say it is, and the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution.” What an assertion of power and responsibility!
Clearly this Supreme Court–with its array of historically learned chief justices–is the proper venue for this presentation and the proper entity to make Constitution Day an annual scholarly event.
Today’s celebration of Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution is tinged with irony, since we held off a vote on ratification until Congress pressured us into the Union, and that vote–34 to 32–was closest of any state.
- We were castigated and ridiculed as Rogues’ Island for our obstinacy, but what was its basis?
We expressed several reservations with regard to that hallowed document.
- We objected to the three clauses in the Constitution that gave implied consent to slavery
(perhaps to atone for past sins).
- We cherished state sovereignty and feared its loss at the hand of an overreaching and oppressive
- We demanded protection for individual rights, especially in the area of religion, realizing that
our neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut still had established, or tax supported, churches.
- And, as the most democratic of all the colonies, we demanded a popular plebiscite on the new
constitution rather than its approval by a ratifying convention.
Well, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791; slavery was abolished in 1865; state sovereignty and true federalism are still potent beliefs; and the use of a popular referendum for state constitutional adoption or amendment is now universal.
In fact, considering these bases for Rhode island’s opposition to the original Constitution–resistance to an overweening and unrestrained central government; concern for the sovereignty and integrity of the states in the spirit of true federalism solicitude for individual liberty, especially religious freedom; opposition to slavery and the incidents of servitude; and concern for democratic participation in the constitution-making process–perhaps Americans might ask not why it took Rogues’ Island so long to join the Union, but rather why it took the Union so long to join Rhode Island!
Before embarking upon our speaking program, two comments are in order:
1. Let us pause to remember Professor Pauline Maier, of MIT, Cambridge, and Little Compton, a leading authority on the founding era, who wrote prize-winning books on the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of the Constitution.
An invitation went to her to attend this event, but its arrival coincided with her sudden death. A Journal editorial on August 22 noted her achievements, which I supplemented with a letter to the editor a week later. That letter reads as follows.
August 22, 2013
Your editorial of August 22nd noting the death and legacy of Professor Pauline Maier was learned, insightful, and beautifully crafted. Though Minnesota-born, Radcliffe-bred, and an educational fixture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pauline’s Rhode Island ties were strong. As a summer resident of Little Compton, she partook in Rhode Island’s great tradition of summer literati–an array of distinguished writers that included Julia Ward Howe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Bancroft, Owen Wister, Edith Wharton, Clement Clark Moore, and Edward Everett Hale, to name but a sampling.
On September 17, 2013 the Rhode Island Supreme Court will host the presentation of the completed three-volume set of all documents relating to Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution. This work, for which I served as consulting editor, was produced by the Center for the Study of the American Constitution under the direction of Professor John Kaminski. Volume Two is dedicated to Pauline. Naturally she was on the invitation list for recognition at this ceremony as one of the greatest-ever historians of America’s founding era and one of the foremost authorities on the ratification process.
I will miss her all-too-rare enthusiasm for the study of history, her incisive wit, her brilliant intellect, her dynamism, but most of all, her friendship.
Patrick T. Conley
Historian Laureate of Rhode Island
2. You have received a copy of the book Constitution Day courtesy of the Rhode Island Publications Society. It contains the lectures from the first 10 Constitution Days, including one by Pauline Maier, two by winners of the Pulitzer Prize in History, two by winners of the Bancroft Prize, one by Chief Justice Weisberger, one by Dr. John Kaminski, and even one by me. Please accept it as a souvenir of this event. Now for the speakers!
It is an honor to introduce our governor.
Lincoln Chafee, following the tradition inaugurated nationally by President James Knox Polk, has chosen not to run for a second term.
The media and political pundits immediately labeled our governor “a lame duck.” What a misnomer!
As a talented and tenacious wrestler in his youth and an accomplished horseman, he remains agile and active. Surely, he is not lame.
Nor is he a duck. Lincoln Chafee confronts controversial issues head on. He puts principle over popularity and integrity above self-interest. Duck is not in his dictionary.
Carrying the avian analogy further, we surely could not classify him as a hawk. As a U.S. Senator he cast the lone Republican vote against the escalation of the American war in Iraq–a courageous decision that left him politically between Iraq and a hard place.
I consider the governor an eagle, now flying high above the partisan political fray, free from distractions, with a sharp eye focused upon carrying away impediments to our state’s economic growth and its financial stability. For him Rhode Island’s redirection is much more important than his own reelection.
As Frank Williams knows, better than any of us here assembled, another man named Lincoln was subjected to harsh and cruel verbal abuse–more so than any American president before or since. But Abraham’s homespun wisdom, his tenacity, his humility, and his integrity compelled posterity to view him in a much more favorable light. Our governor, Lincoln, possesses similar attributes. I feel history will be as kind to him.
Having the surname “Weisberger” carries with it formidable challenges for a practitioner of law in Rhode Island. Our next speaker met those challenges to the satisfaction of his mother, Sylvia, and his famous father. Aided by the fact that intelligence and integrity are integral parts of the Weisberger DNA, Bob Wiesberger has become an able attorney and the current leader of the Rhode Island Bar.
His father, the chief, opened my first Constitution Day observance at our Bristol home, Gale Winds, in 2000 and attended nearly every subsequent historical exercise. It is perfectly appropriate, therefore, that Bob be featured at this landmark event both as a commentator and as a recipient. In a Latin phrase that Bob and his family know so well: Dignum et justum est–It is fitting and just!
Dr. John Kaminski, my much admired colleague and friend, is the Director of the Center for the American Constitution based at the University of Wisconsin. His monumental Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution has engaged his ample talent since 1970. These three Rhode Island volumes, totaling 1,205 pages, bring the series output to 24 of a projected 31 volumes.
In addition to this prodigious effort, John has published another 26 books on such topics as slavery, the Bill of Rights, and biographies of the Founders. I had the great honor to co-author two of those volumes with him.
In 1990 John instituted a judicial education program on the Constitution that provides one-day seminars to federal, state, and international judges.
The Ratification Series, a portion of which we present today, has established John as one of America’s foremost historical editors. If my assessment is insufficient to establish that fact, please listen to the verdict of his scholarly peers:
“These volumes will be used always as examples of the editor’s art. The value of each volume and the whole series is awesome in terms of constitutional history.” Georgia Historical Quarterly
“An unmatched treasure of materials, edited with the highest standards of balance and objectivity, it will inspire students and scholars for generations to come. Its value will be measured in the scholarship it will stimulate,” and “. . . a monumental scholarly achievement and a gift to all Americans, now and in the future, who want to know how our nation came into being.” William and Mary Quarterly
“This record is not only a national treasure, it is a world treasure.” The New Republic
Dr. Kaminski has lavishly entitled his presentation remarks “Mighty Rhode
Island: The Most Important State in the Union.” This bit of hyperbole may be the only blemish on his otherwise impeccable scholarly credentials! John: Quod erat demonstrondum.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley