Transcript: David M. Rubenstein on the Declaration, Constitution and Bill Of Rights (Part 3)

In an interview with National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen, David M. Rubenstein discusses the relationship between the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, telling the story of how one landmark document led to the next in the context of the evolving story of America’s battle for freedom.

rubensteinA transcript of part 3 of the interview is below, along with accompanying video. You can use the time codes next to selected paragraphs to find the approximate passages in the video. (The transcript was prepared by Adept Word Management.)

David M. Rubenstein

0:51:29.7 Obviously, I think the founders would be shocked if they came back today. If the figures in the other room were to come back from wherever they are and come here, they would no doubt say, “We thought the legislature would be the most important, executive maybe second. And then the judiciary, that was nice too, but we didn’t think they would be really an equal branch.” So I think they would be surprised. Has it become too powerful? That’s a decision beyond something I can really comment on. But there’s no doubt that the fact that the judiciary has become as powerful as it has become is something that nobody probably could have anticipated. Because judiciary was given very little authority at the time.

Jeffrey Rosen

Speaking of Justice Scalia, here’s a good question. What’s your opinion of the 10th Amendment? Do you believe, like Judge Bork, that it’s superfluous? I think the questioner means the 9th Amendment. Judge Bork thought the 9th Amendment was superfluous. But the 10th Amendment is the question. All powers granted to the states are reserved to the states or to the people, respectively. The Tea Party cares a lot about it. Some claim that the federal government has become too strong. The Supreme Court is invoking it. What do you think?

David M. Rubenstein

I’m not a Constitutional law scholar. I wouldn’t know exactly how to interpret that. I would say at the time, in order to get the Bill of Rights approved through the process, that 10th Amendment was put in in order to make it clear that while we’re enumerating all these rights, we’re not, in effect, taking over all the powers that the states have. And so don’t worry that these rights are going to be the ones that you now have no other rights, and any other rights not described here the federal government doesn’t grant to you and you can’t get them from the states. So they were kind of protecting themselves a bit. Some people didn’t really want the Bill of Rights. And some people—remember, not all state legislatures wanted it. Some people actually liked the idea of not having a Bill of Rights, because of the equality arguments and other things like that. But some of those who wanted it—even though they wanted it, they wanted to make it clear that the states were still the most important entity in the system. In those days, the state governments were more important than the federal government and they didn’t want to have the federal government taking away rights that the state governments really thought they had.

Jeffrey Rosen

You’ve identified this tension, which we probably do have to describe in talking about the relationship between the documents. On the one hand, the framers wanted to empower government. Because the Articles of Confederation were too weak. On the other hand, they wanted to limit government to protect individuals. How would you describe the way they strike that balance?

David M. Rubenstein

0:53:59.2 They spent 4 months—you had about 57 delegates, I think it was. Ultimately, 39 people signed the Declaration of Independence. Three who were there at the end refused to sign it, because it didn’t have a Bill of Rights. Think about this, if today you were to take 35—or 57 Americans. Who would be the 57 Americans you would trust to come up with a new Constitution? Let’s pretend we need a new Constitution. You’re going to get 57 Americans who are going to, let’s say, be more representative than the 57 who were there. So you’ve got a representation of 57 Americans. Does anybody think that these 57 Americans would come up with a better experiment and a better government than these guys came up with? Probably most people would say no. Everybody would like to be in that Constitutional Convention. Everybody would like to say, “Here’s what the government should do.”

But it was an experiment. And they were—I won’t say it was quite a river boat gamble, but it was an experiment to kind of create a new government out of whole cloth. Remember, there had never been a government created out of whole cloth. All governments before came from rulers who were kings or the equivalence of kings. There had never been a wholly created republican government. It had never happened before. So it was an incredible experiment. And one that, obviously, worked. Think about it now, the Constitution—while in the span of history is relatively young, a couple hundred years—it’s the oldest Constitution still surviving in the world. Many people have drafted them since them. And many of them have fallen apart because they weren’t taken as seriously by people. Therefore, nobody has a Constitution today that’s older than the one we have. And ours is probably less likely to be thrown away than any other one that I know of, because I think people think it works reasonably well. But think about how unlikely it was that 57 white men all relatively privileged and relatively wealthy and relatively well-educated could come up with a government in 4 months that ultimately has survived for 200+ years. That’s an amazing thing, when you think about it.

Jeffrey Rosen

You give the Declaration to foreign embassies. What do you want people who are writing constitutions abroad to know about the Declaration and the Constitution?

David M. Rubenstein

What you’re referring to is that I had a replica of the Stone copy made. There are only limited numbers. So you can’t have an original of the Stone, but a replica made with a historic frame. And I provided it to every American embassy. So when you walk into American embassies overseas now you will see, somewhere in the beginning of the embassy, a copy of the Declaration. And the theory is that it’s a symbol of our country. It represents important rights, and what I think are some of the best things about our country. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the Bill of Rights displayed as well. Maybe that’s another project.

Jeffrey Rosen

Sure, if you want to make that possible.

David M. Rubenstein

0:56:39.6 I do think that when people think about our country, they think about the rights that we have that are so incredibly powerful and such an important part of our country. It is amazing the Constitution was actually put together without the rights being specifically described in the initial Constitution. And it is amazing how the Declaration—while it is more or less an advertisement, a propaganda document, a non-legal document—has come to symbolize certain rights that we have. Even though it doesn’t legally provide any rights.

Jeffrey Rosen

One questioner asks, what were the 2 rights that weren’t ratified by the states in the original Bill of Rights? And we have them here and they’ll be in the document we’ll display next year. The first deals with representation and Congress. And the second became the 27th Amendment about varying the compensation for Senators. How important is it to see the original documents that show the rights that weren’t enumerated?

David M. Rubenstein

What is the purpose? People ask me all the time, “Why do you bother buying these documents and putting them on display? What’s the big deal about it? Because we all know what the text is. We can read it in here. Why not just carry this around. Why bother fooling around with this?” My theory is that when you—despite the age of digitization and the age when you can sit in your home and look at everything—there is a value to actually going out and touching and feeling something. So we can look at pictures of animals. But why do we have a zoo? Because when you actually see them in person, you get a different experience. So when you stand in front of a document that, in some cases—let’s say the original document of the Constitution or the original Declaration of Independence—and you sit there and realize that people who were very famous founding fathers actually put their signature on that document you’re watching. It does make you think, “Wow, what were they thinking about? Why did they do that?” And it makes you want to learn more about history. So what I’m trying to do by having these documents displayed in places and not put in my home is to have school children, young adults particularly, think about the history of our country and realize how amazing it is. And that the rights that we have are unique in the world, and learn more about the history. How did we get these rights? What did the Constitution really guarantee? How did it come about? How did the Declaration come about? If we can learn a little bit more about history, I think we’ll have better citizens and be a better country. So it’s really designed to get people to think about things. Nobody’s life is necessarily going to change by seeing the original of this as opposed to a photocopy. But I do think when you see something that’s original, you tend to have a different experience. You think about it more. Children are more excited about it. Young adults are more excited about it. And hopefully even older adults are excited about it. So that’s the reason for it. It’s not that it’s going to all of a sudden change the world by having the original versus what’s in here. But I think when you read this, as nice as this is, you don’t have the same kind of experience as going up there and seeing it and thinking, “Wow, that guy wrote his signature that way. Maybe I would have written it a different way.”

Jeffrey Rosen

0:59:28.3 You have this mission that school kids, and adults, and Americans, everyone should care about history and be engaged by it. That’s one of our missions of civic education. If we can’t get people to see the physical document, how should we take the Constitution to the schools? What message would you bring? And what medium would you bring it in?

David M. Rubenstein

Justice O’Connor—after she retired from the Supreme Court—among other things, she started a program to kind of get people to learn more about civics. Because her theory, which I agree with, is that people don’t know as much about our government as they should. And informed citizenry is the most important thing we can do in terms of making sure our government works well. And so I do think we should have more education of history. And let me describe this—everybody has heard of STEM, I assume more or less. STEM means science, technology, engineering, math. And the theory is that our school children today don’t have enough STEM education. And therefore, we’re falling behind certain other countries, because we’re not educating enough engineers and so forth. No doubt there’s a lot to that as well. But recently the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had a commission study on whether we should do more in humanities and teach more about the humanities and the liberal arts. And that commission, chaired by—among others—co-chaired by Dick Brodhead, who is the president of Duke University, did a wonderful job of explaining why it is that informed citizenry needs to know more than just STEM-related things. You need to have a liberal arts background. And many people I know in the business community did not actually get a STEM background. They didn’t get educated in business. They got educated in the liberal arts—English, or history, or things like that. And because those disciplines teach you to think a lot—and you can actually learn the business part later on in life. So I try to say to students, “Look, don’t worry about what your career is going to be 10 or 15 or 20 years down the road. Make sure you learn how to reason, how to think.” And one of the best ways to do that is learning the liberal arts, the humanities. And one of the most important parts of that is history. George Santayana, the famous Harvard historian, said, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” So if you don’t remember your history and don’t know your history, you’re likely to make—and citizens are likely to make—the same mistakes we made before. So that’s why I think it’s important for Americans not only to learn their history—it’s important for all people to learn their history. But in our country, because we have such a unique set of rights and we have such a unique set of privileges, I do think it’s important for people to learn how they came about and why we should do everything we can to protect them.

Jeffrey Rosen

1:01:57.1 What age can you start at? My kids are 7 and we have little Constitutional debates around the dinner table.

David M. Rubenstein

I assume you win those.

Jeffrey Rosen

No, no. I moderate. We’re nonpartisan here at the National Constitution Center. Should civics start in 2nd grade? Should it start that early?

David M. Rubenstein

Obviously, you can’t learn in the 2nd grade too many details. But I think beginning in the elementary school, letting people know more about history. When I was in high school, we always—maybe you had this same experience—you get to the middle of the textbook and then the school year was over. So you didn’t actually get past a certain year. And you didn’t actually learn the history. But I think we don’t really teach American history very well. You can graduate from almost any college in the United States today, probably every college in the United States, without taking a course in American history. So think about it. We have this unique history. We have this unique country, yet you can graduate from any great college and never take a course in American history.

Jeffrey Rosen

Back to Madison. An audience member asks, “Why wasn’t Madison involved in the writing and the drafting of the Declaration? And if Jefferson was a representative of Virginia, why didn’t they collaborate? What happened to Madison when it came to the Declaration?”

David M. Rubenstein

Well, Madison at the time was not a delegate to that convention. In other words, he was very young. And he would have probably been too young to have been—in other words, he would have probably been in his early 20s, I think, at the time. I think the earliest person who had part of the 2nd Continental Congress was probably 26 or 27. I think Madison was even younger than that. He wouldn’t have probably been senior enough to have been invited to that Continental Congress.

Jeffrey Rosen

1:03:41.9 Is it true that people didn’t start reading the Declaration widely until Lincoln started quoting it shortly before and during the Civil War?

David M. Rubenstein

Didn’t read the Declaration you’re saying?

Jeffrey Rosen

Yes.

David M. Rubenstein

It didn’t become a holy document—some call it American scripture—until much later. The same is true of like the Gettysburg Address. People forget that—of course, everybody knows it was a 2-minute address. The great speaker in that day was Edward Everett who spoke for 2 hours. He was the most important speaker. Lincoln speaks for 2 minutes. The Gettysburg Address didn’t become famous for maybe 50 years after Gettysburg. It was only later when the Lincoln Memorial was opened in 1922 and they put the words on the Lincoln Memorial. And it was only later when people began to see it as a perfect embodiment of what our country’s all about, that people began to play it over and over again. It was during World War I and World War II. But the Gettysburg Address was forgotten for many years after Lincoln gave it. The same was true with the Declaration of Independence in many ways. I think Lincoln helped revive the idea that it was very important. And Garry Wills who wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning book on the Gettysburg Address, said that what Lincoln did was one of the greatest sleight of hands of all time. Because the Civil War was really about keeping the Union together. But in that sentence that I just quoted, “Fourscore and seven years ago,” what Lincoln is saying, in effect, is we’re fighting this war, because we want to make sure all men are created equal. After he gave that speech, a lot of Northern soldiers said, “Wait a second, I’m not fighting to make sure everybody’s equal. I’m fighting to keep the Union together. What do you mean we’re going to free the slaves? I’m not in favor of that.” And so the sleight of hand was—in effect, what Lincoln did is he kind of redefined what the war was about. It had always been about holding the Union together. But with that speech, he kind of said it’s really about showing that everybody is equal. In effect, we’re going to eliminate slavery. And that was—Lincoln was inspired to do that by the idea that Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. That always stayed in Lincoln’s mind. Lincoln was not a great abolitionist. He had never been that. And he always had said, “Look, I’ll do whatever I can to keep the Union together. And if slavery keeps the Union together, I’ll do that.” But it was later that he kind of realized that slavery just couldn’t work. And ultimately, he kind of fell back on Jefferson’s words and kept—it just kind of bore into his mind that that’s what the country was all about. And so he kind of helped revive the Declaration of Independence by his speech at Gettysburg.

Jeffrey Rosen

1:06:09.5 Great. This is the last question, and it kind of sums up our conversation. It’s a great one. What is a right?

David M. Rubenstein

It’s something you want, and you think will enable you to do something that you should have the ability to do, but without it you may not have the ability to do it. Obviously, rights are interpreted different ways. But the freedoms that we have in the Bill of Rights and the freedoms that most Americans have to do pretty much what they want is something that is so unique. As I go around the world and I travel a lot, I’m amazed at how many other countries want the kind of freedoms that we have. But often they don’t have them. And that’s what makes our country so unique—that the freedoms often guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and by the courts—but also maybe they came back from the initial language in the Declaration of Independence. Again, while it wasn’t a legal document, it did ultimately come to be seen as the perfect embodiment of what this country’s all about. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That kind of embodies what this country is about and probably nobody can say it better than Jefferson did.

Jeffrey Rosen

You just said it very well. David Rubenstein, thank you for lending us the Stone Declaration, and for your patriotic philanthropy, and great conversation. Thank you very much.

David M. Rubenstein

Thank you.

Go to: Part 1 of transcript | Part 2 of transcript

Comments

comments