George Orwell said that we write in order to learn what to think, that the art of expression creates the very thoughts we chose to express. The spirited debate at the Alaska Constitutional Convention over the precise wording of the document shows the delegates writing out loud, and opens a window into the world of 1955-1956 that allows us to see what they were thinking.

The words they chose were crucial because the very nature of a written constitution is that it is intended to last forever. Unlike England’s so-called unwritten constitution, encompassing the entire body of English legal interpretations and judicial precedents, the American system favored the written constitution, a concrete and concise statement of government structure, a permanent record of limitations constituting the supreme law of the land.

The American written constitution befitted a society born out of revolution, a nation desperate to ensure the stability of a "more perfect union," while the British model reflected and accepted the prospect of constant evolution. "The salient characteristic of the United States constitution," as the Encyclopedia Britannica explained in its 11th edition in 1910, "is…its formidable apparatus of provisions against change," in contrast to the unwritten constitution of Great Britain that was "in process of constant change…constantly taking up new ground."

These three excerpts dedicated to Style and Drafting reveal how the delegates in the last two weeks of the convention weighed the meaning of the constitution’s 12,000 words, as well as all the periods, commas and capital letters. It opens with the special address on January 25, 1956 from consultant Kimbrough Owen, a political scientist from Louisiana State University, and leading proponent of constitutional reform in that state.

As Owen told the delegates, Style and Drafting Committees at constitutional conventions were often "either ridiculed or regarded with great suspicion," and despite popular prejudice the goal was not "to make a constitution pretty" or to substitute "pretty words" for "plain words." The style committee had final responsibility for the document as a whole, to ensure "that the desire and intent of the convention is reflected as clearly as possible throughout the entire document." He warned above all about the dire legal consequences that could be caused by sloppy and inconsistent use of terminology.

Owen’s warning about the misunderstandings of the role of a style committee would prove true soon enough. In fact the night of January 25 would see the most heated debates of the entire convention, as the delegates struggled with the wording of the preamble and the bill of rights.

When the style committee shared its proposed changes with the full convention, the first to dispute their work was John Hellenthal, who ridiculed the proposed phrasing "government derives from the consent of the governed," claiming it was "archaic and curious." Yule Kilcher, in his inimitable style agreed that the phrasing seemed to him "unlucky" and that while he could not do a better job in two minutes, he thought ten minutes would be enough.

As the hours went by the debate continued through the night, with delegates criticizing the style and drafting committee’s deletions and additions of phrases, and tempers grew hotter and hotter. Finally Delegate Barrie White moved to throw out the entire preamble as revised by the Style and Drafting Committee and revert to the original.

I just feel that the preamble as it left the floor in second reading had received a thorough and detailed consideration of a large number of the delegates, I forget how many names were appended to that preamble, and that it was a good preamble and I particularly am unhappy to see the deletion of the words ‘reaffirm our belief in government by consent of the governed within the Union of States.’

By trying to throw out the whole preamble White angered many delegates, who believed he should have simply tried to reinsert the deleted phrase; his proposal was defeated on a voice vote, but the battle that night was still far from over.

John Hellenthal made a similar bold suggestion. Promising this would be the only amendment he would make on the Bill of Rights, Hellenthal recommended the delegates reject the Style and Drafting Committee’s version of Section 2 and revert to the original section as voted on the floor.

Hellenthal said the phrase "Government derives from the consent of the governed" was jarring, awkward and unnatural. "I’ve never heard it before in any constitution. I’ve never heard it in common language before. It’s a word—I think it—you just fall—fall all over it when you read it." In contrast he felt the original phrasing of Section 2 was pure poetry.

Now the language that was originally adopted by this body,
and which I think is stirring language and good
language—brief and it’s excellent. "All political power
is inherent in the people. All government originates with
the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted
solely for the good of the people as a whole." That’s the kind
of language that sounds good. That’s the kind of language I
’d like to explain to my son, but I don’t want to go and
tell him, ‘Son, government derives from the consent of
the governed.’

Hellenthal’s amendment unleashed a torrent of even more criticism of the Style and Drafting Committee, as well as a series of procedural moves intended to block the committee’s work. In turn that prompted a sharp defense by Delegate McCutcheon under personal privilege, scolding the critics for their lack of respect and self-importance.

Seeing the deteriorating situation Hellenthal tried to withdraw his proposal for the sake of "harmony," but he was over-ruled, and showing just how divided the convention had become, his amendment failed on a 27-27 vote. Later on reconsideration the delegates would pass Hellenthal’s amendment 34-19, thereby scrapping the version of Style and Drafting, and reverting to the original wording of Section 2.

More amendments were to follow, eventually prompting an exasperated Ed Davis from Style and Drafting to say these "harassing amendments" proved that since half the convention had lost faith in process, the Style and Drafting Committee should be disbanded and replaced by a new group.

Now, in the last two hours, we have considered the
preamble; we had a motion to strike it; we voted it down,
by a rather close margin; we have considered one, two, three
other sections of the bills—of the bills of rights. Of those, at
least two, I think all three, have had motions to strike the
[Style and Drafting] committee’s work and to replace it
with the original as it went off the floor. On those, the votes
have been close. Two of them have had votes of
reconsideration. The matter of the preamble has a reconsideration.
Those things all have to be taken care of, and as long as that
is going on we can’t move. The point I’m trying to make
is that if we’re not doing what the convention wants, it’s
time for us to step down and let somebody else do what
the convention does want.

Realizing that tempers were at the breaking point, cooler heads urged calm. Buckalew, as usual, tried to defuse the situation with a little touch of Texan charm.

I don’t think we should get too excited about it…I
think that two tigers in a rain barrel would have
probably gotten along better than John Hellenthal
and Buckalew at one time or another during the
course of some of our debates. Now, we’ve been
working hard and our—and our—nerves are a
little shattered and we’re getting tired, and things
sort of disagree with us a little. But I think that’s
the cause of this whole furor. I don’t think it’s
any lack of confidence on the part of anybody
in this convention. It’s just one of those things
that go with too much work and too much heat.

The convention continued to work through the report of the Style and Drafting Committee that night and the following day in a contentious mood, weathering the charge that the committee had improperly made a substantive change to the legislative article, and considering once again the entire substitution of the preamble. Speaking for herself and others members of Style and Drafting, Mildred Hermann said the original preamble was nothing but empty phrases.

"It’s a collection of words—high-sounding, nice words,
with God in the middle instead of up front where he
belongs, and it in no sense says ‘in order to do’ something.
Now, I—I don’t mind having my own phraseology
changed, but I hate to be one of a Style and Drafting
Committee that turns out on the world a preamble—
which is probably the only part of the constitution
that will be read by hundreds and thousands of
people even—that isn’t even mechanically
correct in its structure.

In the reading of the final draft from Style and Drafting on February 3, the delegates battled over each sentence, line by line. Mark Twain famously once said that the difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. The 55 men and women who wrote the Alaska Constitution would have agreed.