I wrote What Does the Constitution Do? as part of a Social Studies album for Rhythm, Rhyme, Results. The song was part of a three-song suite, along with “The Bill of (Your) Rights” and “The Rest of the Amendments (11-27),” designed to explain the structure and provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
I chose the topic because, even though I went to an American public high school, I didn’t know very much about the document that governed my country. Sure, I knew the First and Second Amendments were important (at least, to certain groups of people) and that there were other Amendments freeing slaves, granting women the right to vote, and repealing Prohibition. But I lacked an understanding of the document as a whole, especially the original, unamended text.
The biggest challenge, as with most of our material, was to boil down the information to the stuff that really matters. Granted, our Constitution is relatively short (short enough, famously, to have fit in Senator Robert Byrd’s pocket), but it’s anything but simple! It’s also written in an older form of English and contains a fair bit of legal jargon, so to those of us who don’t know the difference between taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, it’s a tough read.
Furthermore, and this is something I didn’t manage to capture in the song, there are tons of laws passed and cases decided that interpret things like the Commerce Clause and the Establishment Clause. At Stanford Law School, where I’ve been for the last few years, we teach an entire course on the First Amendment. Obviously I can’t capture that kind of nuance in a three-minute song. It’s just a testament to the richness of the material.
The song is written with middle and high school students in mind, but I actually used it (to my surprise) when I was taking the New York Bar Exam. I got to a multiple-choice question about congressional power and eliminated two out of four choices, but didn’t know what the right answer was. One of the possible answers referred to a clause in Article II. Recalling the song, I remembered, “Article II sets forth the executive branch . . .” and realized that, since the question was asking about Congress, the answer couldn’t be Article II.
I’m glad the Constitution Center likes the song, and I hope all their fans do as well! For more songs about the Constitution and US government, check out Rhythm, Rhyme, Results.
Ben Jackson is the artistic director and Co-founder of Rhythm, Rhyme, Results as well as a Harvard and Stanford Law graduate. Ben works in New York City as a lawyer. You can download “What Does the Constitution Do?” FREE here,