Title Reviewed:
A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture

Author Reviewed:
Michael Kammen

Rebecca S. Shoemaker


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 83, Issue 3, pp 287-289

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture. By Michael Kammen. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986. Pp. xxii, 532. Illustrations, figure, appendixes, tables, notes, note on sources, index. $29.95.)

Michael Kammen's book is a survey of American perceptions and understanding of the Constitution of the United States over the past two hundred years. The author reviews attitudes toward the document held by generations of politicians, judges, educators, foreign observers, and the American public. He concludes that the Constitution has endured successfully in spite of a substantial amount of ignorance, misunderstanding, and lack of concern. Public perceptions of the document have been shaped not by thorough study but by often inadequate teaching in the schools, by periodic celebrations and publicity surrounding the anniversaries of its drafting, and, particularly in the twentieth century, by the periodic eruption of controversy over constitutional issues.

The Constitution did not become important as a national symbol until about 1860. Prior to that time general lack of knowledge about the document was not alleviated by the few school textbooks of the day. The proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were not published for several decades, and potential experts such as James Madison, who could have clarified and explained the document's contents, chose not to do so. Supreme Court judges, with few exceptions, did not see themselves as interpreters for public edification. Even the celebration planned for the Constitution's fiftieth anniversary in 1837 was blighted by a severe depression.

The Constitution received widespread attention in the 1860s as a basis for many of the issues debated during the Civil War and as a result of amendments proposed during Reconstruction. The celebration of the document's centennial in 1887, though marred by poor planning and insufficient funding, served to arouse a certain amount of interest that carried on into the twentieth century.

The vigorous debates of the Progressive Era and the simultaneous publication of important books on constitutional topics by scholars such as Charles Warren and Charles A. Beard gave impetus to calls in the 1920s for better public education about the Constitution. Periodic celebration of September 17 as Constitution Day, the publication of a few handbooks on the Constitution, and emphasis on questioning applicants for citizenship about their understanding of the document were the chief results. General public interest in some aspects of the Constitution was sparked by the court-packing controversy of 1937, but many scholars ex-pressed concern that the general public tended to equate the Constitution with the Supreme Court.

The role of the Constitution in the resolution of controversial issues in recent times does not seem to have improved general knowledge about the document. A variety of polls have indicated widespread ignorance concerning the provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, a situation Kammen feels is likely to continue. He sees some potential for the media, especially television, to aid in improving the state of affairs through carefully prepared documentaries and interviews and through television coverage of Supreme Court proceedings.

The title, A Machine That Would Go of Itself, is taken from a frequently quoted comment made by James Russell Lowell in the 1880s. Kammen uses it to underscore his opinion that the Constitution is not self-executing but needs widespread study and understanding. Intended for a lay audience, his book is informative, entertaining, and at times witty. Liberally sprinkled with quotations and references to published materials concerning the Constitution, this work awakens the reader to the amazing durability and flexibility of this seminal document and to the importance of every American's having a solid acquaintance with it.

Rebecca S. Shoemaker, Indiana State University, Terre Haute

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.