Weigh in on TIME’s controversial Constitution issue

Update: read this week’s “Constitution Check” for additional commentary on the article.

The July 4 issue of TIME magazine — which featured a shredded Constitution on the cover under the headline “Does It Still Matter?” — has stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy. The cover story, by Managing Editor Richard Stengel, who served as the National Constitution Center’s president and CEO from 2004 to 2006, has come under attack due to what some claim is its liberal bias, factual errors and interpretive mistakes.

You can find Stengel’s article by clicking here: “One Document, Under Siege,”

Here is President and CEO David Eisner’s  response to the controversy:

Seeing the Constitution ominously shredded on Time’s 10th history issue cover made me wonder whether the article would relegate America’s foundational document to the trash. To the contrary, Rick Stengel’s article underscores how much the Constitution does matter, and uses the “long national civics class” of the past decade to prove the point.  What a relief!  As CEO of the National Constitution Center, I identify strongly with the Constitution’s enduring relevance—as may Stengel, who once held this post. Still, he is correct to note the challenges of applying the Constitution to modern life, even as he vouches for its centrality and guidance in our national debates. The Constitution continues to unite and divide us; at the Center, we welcome the controversy as part and parcel of our extraordinary freedom as Americans. Congratulations to Mr. Stengel for bringing the debate to millions of readers—and for creating a cover that’s every bit as provocative as the most eye-popping pic of Lady Gaga.

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback about the TIME article. Among the issues that Stengel’s critics have raised with us:

  • The assertion that “If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it sure doesn’t say so.”
  • The suggestion that the Constitution is not law.
  • The suggestion that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment emancipated the slaves.
  • The suggestion that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to African Americans.
  • The suggestion that the original Constitution declared that black people were to be counted as three-fifths of a person.
  • The suggestion that the original, unamended Constitution prohibited women from voting.
  • The suggestion that the Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to tax individuals based on whether they buy a product or service.
  • The suggestion that Social Security is a debt within the meaning of Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment.

To find out whether Stengel made those claims, read his article. To learn what the Constitution says about those issues, you can find an annotated Constitution by clicking here.

So there’s a lot of controversy.  What do you think?  Submit your comments and questions below.




  1. Aaron Worthing says

    First, if you don’t want to sift through the entire article and just want the errors highlighted, I suggest you read .

    (If that link doesn’t work–I am only okay with html—cut and paste this address: http://bigjournalism.com/aworthing/2011/06/29/fourteen-clear-factual-errors-in-richard-stengels-essay-on-the-constitution-and-i-am-looking-for-your-help/)

    Then if you feel like verifying my claims, by all means check it against the original article. This is all open source.

    Second, I am wondering if the NCC has a position on the subject, given that this man is still active in your organization.

    For instance, take just the first example. You know for a fact that Stengel says “If the Constitution was intended to limit the federal government, it sure doesn’t say so.” So… is the National Constitution Center cool with this statement, despite the fact that it is laughably wrong?

    Shouldn’t it lead the NCC to re-evaluate Mr. Stengel’s role in the Peter Jennings Project?

    This is not a matter of opinion. This is a matter of fact. The Constitution does in fact limit the power of the federal government and anyone who has said that they had a right to bear arms, speak freely or abort a fetus necessarily agrees with that statement. It is a fact. And therefore Stengel is positively misinforming the public on these matters.

    Does the NCC believe that it is appropriate to misinform the public on the Constitution?

  2. Bethanne Jones says

    Truthfully, your response had me concerned about your genuine desire to impart the impartial truth on the Constitution to the public. Mr Stengel states, “they also gave us the idea that a black person was three-fifths of a human being, that women were not allowed to vote and that South Dakota should have the same number of Senators as California, which is kind of crazy.” Those are very clear statements and I can not see a way to misinterpret them.

    The three fifths argument is tired and if you believe it, then you have either chosen to blind yourself to any other argument or you have never actually read and thought about Article 1, Section 2.

    Women in New Jersey did, in fact, have the right to vote from 1776 until 1807. So this statement is simply false. Again, I would expect someone so closely associated with the National Constitution Center to know more than Mr. Stengel seems to.

    Discussing the difficulties of applying it are certainly worth discussing, but by choosing to put his own opinions so much to the forefront in this article, Mr. Stengel has done us all a disservice. He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but he seems to be using his position at Time coupled with his former position at the National Constitution Center to advance his own political agenda. In so doing, he has damaged my opinion of both institutions, which is unfortunate.

    Given that this was not produced under the auspices of the National Constitution Center and they presumably had not seen it before it was published, I am choosing to believe that they are not happy with the blatant untruths and factual distortions but that they are publicly taking the high road with regard to Mr. Stengel. It is my hope that you are privately taking steps to distance yourself from any future public statements he might make that are equally questionable. I can understand why you would choose to be polite and supportive of your past executive, but I really do hope you address this matter with him in a very clear manner in private. It is one thing to have a strong opinion that is rooted in fact. It is another to ignore the facts to promote their agenda.

  3. Dr. Steve Frank says

    The National Constitution Center has been, and will continue to be, a neutral forum for constitutional controversy and debate. We welcome the comments from Constitution Daily readers that our post on the TIME cover-story controversy has received. We also look forward to continuing the conversation. Look for an upcoming Constitution Check post by Lyle Denniston on the issue of limited government, which has been a subject of comment.

  4. cnicholl says

    With all due respect Dr. Frank, the claim of neutrality is a dodge. It is not as though Mr. Worthing is objecting to Mr. Stengel’s policy preferences when it comes to whether an how the Federal government should address the uninsured (though I have no doubt that he does). Mr. Stengel’s article is replete with simple, patent errors both substantive and pedantic. Mr. Stengel has traded on his supposed expertise and association with this organization to land himself a front page article in a legendary magazine. Said article will indubitably lead many people astray by increasing, not decreasing, ignorance of the Constitution and the structure of our government.

    Would this organization take no position had Mr. Stengel’s article stated that the Constitution created a uni-cameral parliament? Vested the executive power in a race of hyper-intelligent bees? These are not matters of opinion but of objective Truth. Should the NCC be unable to take a position that, in fact, the Constitution created a government of limited powers while maintaining a forum for discussion what the limits of those powers may be, then I think it is appropriate to question whether it is an organization worthy of its name or existence.

    Chad E. Nicholl, J.D.

  5. Aaron Worthing says

    Dr. Frank

    Opinions are rightful issues for debate. Facts are not. It is simply not factual to assert that the Constitution didn’t place any limits on the Federal Government, for instance. The Bill of Rights and Art. I, Section 9 is filled with explicit restrictions. Nor is it factual to claim, as Mr. Stengel did, that the 14th A. was about emancipation. That was the 13th Amendment.

    I found 14 errors in his piece, 8 of which directly pertained to the reading of the constitution itself. These are not matters of opinion. If you go into any court in America and say what Stengel said, they would laugh you out of court. If you said it on a bar exam, they would probably fail you and they would definitely mark them as incorrect. I suggest you read my piece and make up your own mind.

    It is nothing less than an embarrassment that the NCC sees no need to correct such egregious errors. Some things are a matter of opinion and rational debate. But not the 14 points I raised.

  6. Aaron Worthing says

    and let me sincerely apologize for badly flubbing my html in the first comment. But somehow i managed to put in the right link in long form.

    I always say that when it comes to computers… i am a pretty good lawyer.

  7. snickersnots says

    “So there’s a lot of controversy.”

    Sure, but what is the controversy? Are we arguing about limits on the commerce clause? Are we arguing about the type of government use allowing eminent domain? Are we talking about the necessary elements of a miranda warning? All are subjects of controversy but can be honestly debated by people with differing opinions.

    Such is not the case here. The only reason there is a controversy is because a powerful member of the media (and associate of the NCC) used a huge forum to make provably false statements about the constitution. Questions of fact, not opinion.

    “What do you think?”

    Let me see. What do I think? Well, its hard for me to believe that the National Constitution Center is so unfamiliar with certain fundamental aspects of the constitution that they can’t recognize the absurdity of Mr. Stengel’s claims. So I’m left to speculate about why the NCC would post such a limp-wristed, semi-defense of Mr. Stengel. I guess I agree with Mr. Worthing when he suggests you are unwilling to challenge an important and influential member of your organization, regardless of what drivel he spews. That’s what I think.

  8. Ken Ashford says

    People need to read what Stengel actually wrote, rather than chastise Mr. Stengel for claims about the Constitution which he didn’t actually make.

    For example, Stengel never wrote that “the Constitution is not law”. The closest Stengel came to writing “the Constitution is not law” is when he was on the topic of the framers’ attitude toward immigration, writing “For them, it [the Constitution] was a set of principles, not a code of laws.”

    Stengel’s critics, including Mr. Worthing above, have “translated” this sentence and now are hopping mad that Stengel wrote that “the Constitution is not law”.

    The fact of the matter is, the Constitution, while being law, is NOT a “code of laws”. It is NOT a comprehensive codified compendium of statutes circumscribing legal and illegal behavior like, say, an actual code (e.g., the United States Code, and state code). And the framers didn’t intended it to be.

    In short, Mr. Stengel never wrote that the “Constitution is not law” and what Mr. Stengel actually wrote… was 100% correct.

    The article above urges readers to “find out whether Stengel made those claims” by reading his article. I urge people to do so before accepting the criticism leveled against it. I think Stengel has, at worst, written an article that (in certain places) carries enough imprecision such that pundits can create a (weak) controversy… and that’s what has happened. But beyond that, there’s little to take issue with.

  9. Bethanne Jones says

    If the National Constitution Center is simply a “neutral forum for constitutional controversy and debate”, then why is your job title, Dr. Franks, “Vice President of Education and Exhibits”? If you are in the business of educating, which your website certainly seems to indicate, then you need to clearly address issues such as this where facts are blatantly ignored and misrepresented. If you do not, then you are either cowards or frauds. Since Mr. Stengel is the Managing Editor of Time, I do not expect you to be able to get them to address the issue, but you can certainly do so on your own blog and your own website. And you should be able to so in a manner that is not offensive to Mr. Stengel, but if your mission is truly to educate, then Mr. Stengel and his feelings should not be more important than educating people about the Constitution and countering mis-information when you find it, particularly in such an important and widely read publication.

    There are many things in our Constitution which may be debated. The Constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution is not something people are objecting to a debate over. That is a good and healthy subject to discuss. Discussions of the debt ceiling are fine. It is important to have public debates on Obamacare and how widely the Commerce Clause should really be allowed to be applied. And we really do need to deal with immigration, as everyone knows. But Mr. Stengel could have dealt with those in a neutral way. He could even have dealt with them in a very partisan manner and not evoked so much controversy HAD HE STUCK TO ACTUAL FACTS AND CLEARLY STATED OPINIONS. However, he has so many obvious factual errors for anyone with even a slight knowledge of the Constitution that the credibility of the entire piece is destroyed.

  10. John Gardner says

    So there’s a lot of controversy. What do you think?

    I think you as NCC staff are dodging the controversy instead of addressing it apparently because of who wrote the Time’s article. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  11. Allison Horton Metcalf says

    What do I think? I think Mr. Stengel is out of his league and quite possibly out of his mind. As Haakon Dahl says above, your war on my Constitution will fail. If those of you at Constitution Daily want to “fundamentally change” the Constitution, much as our Dear President wants to “fundamentally change” our nation, then please do go form your own country somewhere else and write the constitution you wish this one was. And please do take the President with you. And please – for the love of God, please – stop calling yourselves Americans when your condescending, elitist, socialist/Marxist/pre-communhist attitudes betray your real allegiance.

  12. Allison Horton Metcalf says

    Correction: “pre-communist.” That’s what I get for trying to post something quickly while having my lunch (you know, that meal that most of us who have real jobs eat at our desks).

  13. rsummari4 says

    Of the course the Time article showed ignorance of the Constitution. One may find that in a number of corners of our American society. Sadly, this is many times true for the journalistic community – perhaps more so than others. However, the Time article was most damaging because it was written by the big cheese of Time – a once respected news mag. Further, the fellow previously sought to instruct other journalist about the Constitution. In that regard, he exposed himself as a misinformed pretender — and now his former colleagues are attempting to cover for his counter-factual writtings. What’s that say about the Constitution Center?