from The Water's Edge

Reading the Constitution

January 14, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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U.S. Constitution.
U.S. Constitution. (Courtesy the National Archives)

I had intended to blog last week about the Republicans setting aside time last Thursday morning to read the U.S. Constitution out loud on the House floor. I typed up a first paragraph but then the other demands of my got job in the way. That and obsessing over the outcome of the University of Michigan’s search for a new football coach.

[Did you know that there are otherwise sane adults out there who spend much of their day on so they can see where their alma mater’s athletic director might be flying so they can speculate about who he might be interviewing? And that there are television stations that send camera crews out to the airport to see who gets off the plane?]

Well, it’s a week later and the Wolverines have a football coach—Good luck Brady Hoke!—and Jill Lepore has written an excellent article for the New Yorker about the Constitution and its worshipers. The former allows me to focus on writing a post and the latter gives me a reason to write it.

I had wanted to write about the reading of the Constitution for two reasons. The first was to say "Bravo!" to Speaker Boehner and his team for doing it. I wish every American would read the Constitution from time to time. I would say the same thing for the Declaration of Independence (July 4 is a good day to read it) and a few of the Federalist Papers (#10, 51, 64, 70, and 75 would top my list).

The Constitution can be tough sledding for modern eyes—my students always complained when I assigned them to read it—but it was not an easy read even when it was written. As Lepore points out, Patrick Henry (he of “give me liberty or give me death”) argued that it was “of such an intricate and complicated nature, that no man on this earth can know its real operation.”

The second point I had wanted to make is that contrary to the idea that animates Tea Partiers and prompted Speaker Boehner to order the Constitution read out loud, America’s founding blueprint is not an exhaustive “how-to” guide to American politics akin to a baseball umpire’s rulebook. The framers did not try to settle every potential question that summer in Philadelphia. As Lepore writes:

A great deal of what many Americans hold dear is nowhere written on those four pages of parchment, or in any of the amendments. What has made the Constitution durable is the same as what makes it demanding: the fact that so much was left out.

The framers, wisely or not, left it to their progeny to fill in the blank spaces.

In this regard the U.S. Constitution differs from most state constitutions, which were written to be comprehensive rulebooks. The U.S. Constitution comes in, by Lepore’s calculations, at 4,400 words. By comparison, Alabama’s constitution runs some 750,000 words. (No, that is not a typo, and let’s hope Alabama state legislators don’t decide to read their constitution out loud.)

The effort by many state constitutions to specify even mundane details of government explains why Massachusetts has the only state constitution older than the U.S. Constitution. When states try to specify all the rules, they continually need to rewrite their basic governing document just to keep pace with events.

The broad and general language of the Constitution, coupled with the fact that the men who wrote it almost immediately began bickering over what it meant, has always left me scratching my head over why original intent has such strong appeal. If Hamilton and Madison found room for argument in the Constitution, why shouldn’t we? What grounds would we have to take Hamilton’s views over Madison’s, or vice versa?

Anyway, I urge you to read the Constitution. But have a dictionary handy. You may be savvy enough to know what Flightracker is, but you probably need some help on letters of marque and reprisal.

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