In 1787 delegates from the original 13 states met in Philadelphia and drafted a proposed new basic law for the United States of America. They wanted to replace the grossly inadequate Articles of Confederation under which we were then governed.
After heated debates, the necessary number of states ratified this proposal, adopting what is now, as amended, our Constitution.
The Cincinnati Inquirer recently ran a commentary calling for a new constitutional convention. The idea is a tempting one, given the shambles our Supreme Court has made of constitutional law and the imperfections of the Constitution which created the opportunities for it to do this.
Let me remind readers who react indignantly to any suggestion that our current Constitution is improvable that the people who wrote it never claimed that it was perfect. As Alexander Hamilton noted at the time, "I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect men."
And the 1787 convention included an amendment clause in the Constitution, which would be inadvisable in a document if it was already perfect. Why change a perfect document?
Granted, the present Constitution needs improvement. But on balance I think it would probably be a bad idea to hold another convention.
The prologue to my 1981 college textbook weighed the opportunities against the dangers, noted the changed circumstances since 1787, and concluded flatly that it was unlikely that a new convention could improve the country. And this was written decades before the current political mess developed.
A new constitutional convention would have one obvious advantage over the 1787 convention: experience accumulated in the meantime.
Two hundred thirty-five years under the present Constitution, a Civil War, several world wars as well as many "small" ones, a Depression and a multiplicity of recessions, three presidential impeachment crises, and about 600 volumes of Supreme Court decisions have taught us much about what works and what does not.
And we could also consider experience with constitutions in other countries.
However, the disadvantages faced by a new convention would far outweigh these advantages.
In 1787, delegates were able to maintain strict secrecy until they had agreed on a final document.
A new convention would suffer from intense news coverage and would probably have to be televised live. But privacy is needed to allow delegates the flexibility to negotiate delicate compromises without losing political face when they have to back down on particulars.
In 1787 there were no political parties, an immense advantage. Individual convention delegates were able to negotiate as they personally felt best.
Unlike 1787, the convention would be under immense pressure from organized interest groups, and not only by domestic groups. Foreign governments would not be able to restrain themselves from trying to shape the new constitution to suit their own interests.
Furthermore, the current Constitution is not as obviously defective as the Articles of Confederation. There would be many people who consider a new constitution to be totally unnecessary and even a step backwards.
The current Constitution was barely ratified, and a new one would have an even tougher time. So why spend time, effort, and attention drafting a document that would probably never go into effect?
A game I invented, Perplexichess, allows players to change a rule instead of moving a piece. Experience with this game, in college classes and other groups, shows that rule changes often produce results which were neither expected nor desired. by the player who changed them.
And real life is far more complicated than any game, which makes it even harder to predict the consequences of legal changes, especially major ones. A new constitution would undoubtedly incorporate major changes.
Society today is far more complex than it was in 1787. It will probably be safer to continue our historical, piecemeal approach to constitutional change, one amendment, one judicial decision, at a time.