National Constitution Center senior fellow Christopher Phillips explains why a vibrant constitutional republic hinges on an informed and involved citizenry.
When I make my way each week through the capacious main entrance of the National Constitution Center, I almost always take pause when I pass by this quote by Teddy Roosevelt that’s etched in the wall: “the people themselves must be the ultimate makers of their own Constitution.”
How do you become a ‘maker’ of the Constitution? Does that mean you have to be a Framer of the Constitution itself? Or try to amend it? Or try to become more active in the civic arena in ways that bring the promise of the Constitution, as you into it, into actual practice? Roosevelt meant that we each should be able to weigh in on what it means, on how it’s interpreted – to the extent that, if we the people differ markedly, we “should be given the chance ….to settle what interpretation it is that [our] representatives shall therefore adopt as binding.”
Above and beyond the fact that this has proven to be easier said than done, it seems to me that in order to be a ‘Constitution’ maker, we must regularly immerse ourselves in our supreme law of the land and familiarize ourselves with it, determine what we take it to mean – not necessarily once for all, but perhaps on an ongoing basis. Some may decide it’s ‘organic’ in a way that lends itself to ever new interpretation over time; others that it is fixed, unchanging. What matters is to consult it, ponder it continually, talk with others about it, read books about it, as a way of discovering and clarifying your own answers. It almost can’t help but give you a greater appreciation for the extraordinary fete of our Framers, even if and as you might find fault with some of it.
I bet many of you are familiar with the provocative bestseller ‘Republic, Lost,’ by Harvard Law professor and reformer Lawrence Lessig. In entitling this blog ‘Republic, Found,’ I’m not in any way making a claim one way or the other that Lessig’s intriguing prescriptions for change, constitutional and otherwise, are just what the doctor ordered for our republic. Rather, I’m staking out the view that in order to ‘find’ our republic — better understand, appreciate and discover what it was, is, and will or might be down the road — it’s important to make it a habit to reflect on it. Maybe that won’t make you a ‘Constitution maker,’ but instead a constitutional republic ‘finder.’
I stress that I’m not a specialist in constitutional matters. Rather, I’m an inquirer who specializes in a version of Socratic exploration that I’ve been developing and polishing for nearly two decades – and I find the Constitution endlessly fascinating I its own right, and a great springboard for inquiries of many sorts. Some of you might know of my Socrates Café groups, which I inaugurated all the way back in 1996 and which now take place in a variety of venues – cafés, libraries, community centers, college campuses, schools, among others — in the U.S. and around the globe. Others might be more familiar with my Constitution Café project (and by my book of the same name), inspired in large part by fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson but also in many important respects by James Madison. In this latest dialogue initiative, I travel across the fruited plain engaging Americans from diverse backgrounds and with a rich variety of perspectives in important ‘constitutional conversations.’
One of the central reasons I inaugurated this was not only because I believe that a vibrant constitutional republic hinges on an informed and involved citizenry, but that this in turn makes it incumbent to think deeply about our Constitution, how it impacts us, molds us, singly and together, and how we in many ways return the favor. This project was also driven by the results of a comprehensive survey undertaken by the Center for the Constitution in Montpelier, Virginia, home of former President James Madison, often called ‘the father of the Constitution.’ The survey showed that most of us haven’t read the Constitution – certainly not anytime lately. I began to ask myself what I might do to change this, so that we’re more motivated to contemplate it.
With hundreds of Constitution Café dialogues now under my belt, I’m pleased to report that most participants in the Constitution Café – including yours truly — leave these exchanges with a deeper and more abiding appreciation of and curiosity about the extraordinary document crafted by our Framers. We also often come away with a keener sense of possibilities and prospects for how we might involve ourselves in our unique experiment with republican government. Needless to say, I certainly have become even more intrigued about constitutional matters – and can now sate my appetite even more, thanks to the wonderful opportunity I now have at the National Constitution Center to contribute my modest talents to furthering its vital nonpartisan mission. This has been a springboard for continual explorations of the Constitution, inspiring me to ponder, alone and with others, our supreme law of the land with even more frequency. As I return to it again and again, and read an array of works by scholars and pundits and other thoughtful writers that deal with both timely and timeless constitutional matters, I come to value it even more – and this motivates me to continue to probe and plumb and mine its rich contents. I find meaning in this exercise, and I find, again and again, our republic, my republic.
Christopher Phillips is a Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center. Dr. Phillips was most recently senior writing and research fellow with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. He is the founder and executive director of Democracy Café, a nonprofit that seeks to engage more citizens in the democratic process.