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Md. to vote in November on whether to hold constitutional convention

The 1867 Maryland Constitution is stored in a cabinet at the state archives. It has been amended more than 200 times.
The 1867 Maryland Constitution is stored in a cabinet at the state archives. It has been amended more than 200 times. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2010

With July Fourth complete, it's time to face a real test of independence: If you have the right to tear up and rewrite your constitution, should you?

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It's not an academic exercise this year in Maryland. It's a question on the November ballot.

Maryland is one of 14 states with a constitutional requirement designed to make voters decide at least once a generation whether to start over. The protection goes back to the Founding Fathers and the thinking that, every now and then in a healthy democracy, the People probably have to shake things up.

The question that Free State voters will face -- whether to seat a constitutional convention next year in the State House, where George Washington resigned as commander of the Continental Army -- is a direct challenge from the grave of Thomas Jefferson. In an era of much shorter life expectancy, Jefferson pegged the shelf life of a democratic charter at no more than 20 years.

"The earth belongs always to the living generation," Jefferson wrote to James Madison, pondering the forces behind the French Revolution. "Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right."

So follow Jefferson and throw off the shackles of past generations, you say? Toss out Maryland's 143-year-old Constitution and write a better one?

But what's wrong with current one?

Oh, where to begin . . .

First, a little history. Maryland's Constitution of 1867 -- the basis for today's document -- sits in a drawer, No. 11, to be exact, in a laundry room-size vault. The number is random, as is the company it keeps. Below it are some 1907 newspaper clippings of Mark Twain and a former Maryland first lady in a frilly gown and a mysterious English land deed from the 1600s written on parchment. Stacked in drawers above it are the previous versions of the state's Constitution.

At first glance, it doesn't so much make one think of a grand, founding document as of a third-grade cursive-writing project. Its Declaration of Rights sprawls across wide-lined, easel-size sheets of paper in jagged letters. More than 125 pages later, where the state's long-winded constitutional conventioneers wrapped up Aug. 17, 1867, secretary Milton Y. Kidd's hand appears to have seized up, leaving his signature barely legible.

The politics that led to the document are a little clearer. It was drafted immediately after the Civil War, with some language that appeared a bit more sympathetic to Confederates than to the Unionists who had installed a version during the height of the war.

For instance, there was a provision, since removed, that new counties could only be formed by counting the number of white men. But mostly, the 1867 rewrite was undertaken to undo Republicans' efforts to prevent Democrats from regaining power. That was no more evident than in Article 11, which dissolved the Republican-led government of Baltimore in an attempt to return Democrats to power.

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