Olive A. Taylor {"Blacks and the Constitution," op-ed, July 3, 4 and 5} reduces American constitutional history to a sordid story (up to the mid-20th century) of property rights trampling upon human rights. There is no room for complexity, ambiguity or irony in her account. Indicting the Framers of the Constitution for failing to envision a society in which blacks and women would participate as free and equal members, she commits (for a historian) the unpardonable sin of judging the past by the standards of the present.

Her attack on John Marshall is unfair and misinformed. Citing a series of Supreme Court cases, she writes: "In not one of the cases in which blacks petitioned for freedom did Chief Justice Marshall free them. He remanded them back to the oblivion of slavery. Incontrovertibly, the legitimation of slavery takes place here under Marshall." Poor Judge Marshall is even made to bear part of the guilt for Chief Justice Taney's infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857.

The legitimation of slavery occurred long before John Marshall became chief justice. Much as he personally abhorred slavery, his duty as a judge compelled him to deal with it as having the sanction of positive law. To suggest, as she does, that the Marshall court had the power to strike a blow against the peculiar institution is a serious historical error. All of the cases she mentions turned on narrow legal points. Even if the court had decided in favor of the petitioning slave (which not infrequently happened in American courts), the ruling would not have affected the legality of slavery as an institution. No case occurred under Judge Marshall in which the legality or constitutionality of slavery was at issue.

One might plausibly argue, contrary to Prof. Taylor, that John Marshall actually helped to bring about the ultimate liberation of blacks. He did so in two ways. First, his great nationalizing decisions provided a moral and intellectual justification for the supremacy of the federal government over the states, one that Abraham Lincoln drew upon in 1861 in going to war to preserve the union -- a war that abolished slavery. Second, John Marshall's creative leadership made the Supreme Court an institution of extraordinary power in the American system of government. It was this institution that in time became the champion of the "second emancipation" of blacks.

To give John Marshall credit for liberating black people is less historically absurd than to denounce him as the "architect of a structure that entombed the fundamental rights of blacks."

CHARLES F. HOBSON Williamsburg, Va.

EDTEXT The continuing controversy over the Thurgood Marshall speech serves to highlight some of the best features of the foundation of our government -- the Constitution. It is more titillating to play up the supposed shortcomings of the Constitution and to read how blacks may not share the reverence that the rest of us feel for this document. It is comforting to read the articles by Olive A. Taylor and to know that some blacks understand that the Constitution of necessity bowed to the realities of the time. Its writers knew that to hold out for instant perfection could cause the whole exercise to be stillborn.

What all of us should be able to agree on is that the saving grace of the Constitution is not its perfection at birth but its ability to grow with the evolving society that it brought into being. What better tribute can anyone render to it than to recognize that it has the innate ability to be upgraded, through sober and proper procedures, to reflect our highest aspirations? As our society has come to understand that it is to the benefit of all to grant full rights to all, the Constitution stands ready, through the amendment process, to reflect these new truths.

Rather than chide those who wrote the Constitution for their lack of perfection, it is much more appropriate that we pass on to our children the knowledge that they too have the power to search for higher truth and the opportunity to fulfill even more of the promise of human freedom, as exemplified in the Constitution, and thus to create a more perfect reflection of a more perfect union. Hail to our Constitution, the living document. JOHN L. McLUCAS Alexandria