Luncheon Remarks at the 40th Anniversary of the Opening of the Constitutional Convention

Lansing - Lansing Center
Wednesday, October 3, 2001
"Remembering Our Constitution Makers"

Forty years ago today, nearly 2,000 citizens assembled in the Lansing Civic Center.

At exactly 12:05 p.m., they witnessed Secretary of State Jim Hare officially open Michigan's fifth Constitutional Convention. At 12:47, 144 delegates were sworn in by Chief Justice John Dethmers. Thus began your work to give the people of Michigan a greatly improved fundamental law.

Four decades later, the judgment of history speaks with one voice. You succeeded brilliantly.

Michigan has one of the finest state constitutions in the land. Michigan is proud to memorialize you and your work.

We are doing so formally - in less than two hours - in the new state office building on Allegan Street. We are naming the building "Constitution Hall" because it is located on the site of the old Lansing Civic Center in which you worked.

As "Constitution Hall" nears completion, we are setting up permanent exhibits in the public areas of the building. These exhibits will tell visitors who you are and what you achieved during the seven and a half months you labored on that site.

You know, September 11th changed everything, including this reunion. We are all appalled by the horrific attacks on our soil, yet we must all feel heartened by the response of the American people. There is a unity and patriotism the likes of which many of us have never seen before.

Americans are eager to rediscover and reconnect with what it is that makes our nation exceptional and worth defending.

Although this 40th reunion was planned months ago, the timing three weeks after a major turning point in our history prompts us to reflect on and celebrate your achievement even more than before. In a very real sense, when we celebrate Michigan's 1963 Constitution, we are celebrating the political miracle that is America.

The '63 Constitution is a strong branch of the Liberty Tree - the same Liberty Tree that produced the Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Ours is a constitution that embodies the best in the American tradition. It is a freedom charter worth celebrating!

Not that it was all harmony during the seven and a half months you worked. We all know how much factions, dissent, and compromise shaped the final document. In the end, the citizens of Michigan approved the '63 Constitution by a slim margin - 7,400 votes - and, believe me, I know a thing or two about close elections!

The way I see it, the slim margin of victory is not our Constitution's weakness, but its strength.

For it withstood not only the divisions of its day, but also the challenges of four decades - in retrospect, some of the toughest decades in Michigan history.

How has it come through?

Consider this: during the last 40 years it has been amended only 22 times. That, by the way, is about half the rate at which the 1908 Constitution was amended. Also, the people have had the opportunity to call a new constitutional convention twice - in 1978 and 1994 - and voted it down both times. All this is proof that the '63 Constitution is a superb work of statecraft.

One appreciates your achievement even more in light of how different Michigan and the United States were in 1961. The nation's population was only 180 million back then; today it's 280 million. John F. Kennedy was in his first year in office. That relic of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, was just going up. Another relic of the Cold War, the space race, was also just getting under way: Allan Shepard made the first manned U.S. space flight that year.

It was certainly a different era in Michigan politics. Most Con-Con delegates spent little or nothing in their campaign races. However, there was one big spender who got carried away: he spent a whopping $451 to get elected!

On that opening day forty years ago, my predecessor Governor Swainson addressed you, saying, "This convention is the heaviest political responsibility most of you will ever be called upon to bear. Your work must transcend partisanship. Never has so much responsibility been given to a body of [Michigan] delegates."

The experience would prove, for many of you, to be your greatest test in the public arena.

Which leads to another significant point that has been observed about you individually and as a group: Con-Con launched many of you on a distinguished career of public service.

You changed the face of Michigan politics.

In the political arena, we think of titans like George Romney, Coleman Young, and Richard Austin. In the judiciary, we think of stalwarts like Bob Danhof and Glenn Allen.  Your distinguished service left a permanent mark on our state - one that makes us proud.

As I listened to the roll call, I was struck by how many of you I've had the privilege of serving with.

In my years in the House, I worked with Daisy Elliott, Jim Farnsworth, Stanley Powell, Tom Sharpe, and Steve Stopczynski, among others. In my years in the Senate, I worked with Jack Faxon, Ray Murphy, Joe Snyder, and Tony Stamm, among others.

There are so many delegates I've had the privilege to know: Charlie Anspach, Garry Brown, John Hannah, Steve Nisbet, Tom Downs, and Dick Van Dusen, just to mention a few.

Two delegates in particular had a direct impact on my life.

In 1966, I went to Operation Bentley, funded by Alvin Bentley's foundation. There I met D. Hale Brake, a gentleman from Stanton who served as a senator and state treasurer. He was an early inspiration to me. His advice - that one is well served by reading the Constitution and knowing the rules - has helped me every step of the way.

We tend to forget nowadays, but Con-Con was not just a Michigan event. The eyes of the nation were on our Great Lakes State during the seven and a half months in which you worked.

You did not disappoint people looking for a good story.

Chuck Harmon, writing for Booth newspapers, was on hand to document the proceedings.

In addition, a number of now-famous national reporters covered Con-Con at one point or another, among them Bob Novak, Tom Wicker, Jack Germond, Sander Vanocher, and Johnny Apple.

There were some rather interesting moments in the course of your proceedings. Remember when, just before Christmas, you hosted former President Eisenhower? Both Republicans and Democrats liked his message, although one witness was heard to say - and this is a direct quotation from the Gongwer report of December 13, 1961 - "My gosh! Romney's brainwashed him!" Not the last time that word was associated with George Romney!

Then there was the time a couple of delegates got into such a heated debate that it almost came to fisticuffs on the convention floor.

Just about everyone had an opinion about the "honorable compromise" struck between Romney and Brake at the critical stage in the proceedings.  The delegates, as I understand it, formed three different camps: (1) Brake and the more conservative rural Republicans, (2) Romney and the more urban Republicans, and (3) Democrats, led by Jack Faxon. At least that's what Jack's always told me!

When the two Republican camps came together, Democrats were not exactly thrilled.

As historians Willis Dunbar and George May observed, "From this point forward party acrimony was bitter and all chance of unanimity in the final outcome was dissolved."

If the fact that the delegates were not in unanimous support bothers some, then they should think back to the origins of American history. At the great Philadelphia Convention of 1787, where our nation's Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, there was considerable dissent from the start. Rhode Island would not even send delegates to Philadelphia. Of the 55 delegates that did attend, only 39 signed the document, and it took almost a year to ratify it.

Constitutions begin with principles - rock-solid principles like liberty, justice, equality before the law, and popular sovereignty. But they are shaped by other forces - the shifting sands of deals, compromises, unexpected alliances, even the accidents of history. There is not one without the other.

This applies no less to our 1963 Constitution than to the U.S. Constitution. Given this reality, you struck an admirable balance between rock-solid principles and shifting sands. You managed to craft a 9,000 word document containing 250 sections. That's more than twice the length of the U.S. Constitution.

Because journalists and historians are attracted to the friction points in your deliberations, it is easy to overlook that you achieved unanimity or near unanimity in 190 of those sections. There was virtual universal agreement on four-fifths of the document.

The result is an elegant frame of government. Power is checked and dispersed among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. At the same time, our citizens reserve the awesome power of initiative, referendum, recall, and amendment.

I am especially impressed with how you improved the executive branch, thanks to the executive branch committee, which did an outstanding job following the lamp of experience. You took seriously the testimony of both Democratic and Republican governors: then-Governor Swainson, and all living former governors of Michigan - "Soapy" Williams, Harry Kelly, Wilber Brucker, Murray Van Wagoner - and even the governors of New York and New Jersey.

Democrats and Republicans alike testified that the executive branch had to be strengthened and modernized. The universal judgment was that executive duties had been frustrated by the 1908 Constitution. It was saddled with a ridiculously large number of independent agencies - 120 in all.

Now, it's been said that a government agency is the closest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth. But you defied that truism by deconstructing those agencies and limiting the executive branch to 20 departments. Your work - and the ratifying vote - made the chief executive strong enough to do the job the people elected him to do. Indeed, you made it possible for every governor from George Romney forward to fulfill properly executive duties:

  • Budgets originate in the executive office.
  • They have to be balanced.
  • To make sure they remain balanced, the governor has a line-item veto.
  • Likewise he can reduce appropriations by means of executive orders.
  • The governor is also authorized by the Constitution to organize and reorganize the executive department.
  • Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan Constitution also provides for the governor to fill judicial vacancies without the advice and consent of the legislature.

These improvements made it possible for me to act on the advice of George Romney, who in 1990 urged me to "Be bold!" In 1991, my first year in office, I studied the Constitution and exercised virtually every power it gave to a Michigan governor.

The only thing I did not do - and have still not done - is call a special session of the Legislature.

But - who knows? - I still have 15 months left in office!

In conclusion, let me say this. Civilization is accustomed to honoring its lawgivers, its constitution-makers. That's why we remember Moses, Hammurabi, Solon, and America's Founders. Today in Michigan, we remember you. Time has ratified your hard work and wisdom on behalf of our state.

I end these remarks mindful of how you began:

"We, the people of the State of Michigan, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of freedom, and earnestly desiring to secure these blessings undiminished to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution."

Your generation has been called "the greatest generation."

Let it also be said about those who drafted our 1963 Constitution, "Well done, good and faithful servants." I thank each of you for your gift to the people of Michigan. We are a better state because of you.

God bless you.

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Click here to view Michigan's 1963 Constitution.