The Backstory


Michael and Luke wrote this book together over the course of nine summers – a part-time, father-son summer vacation project, spanning Luke’s high school and college years.  We started in the summer of 2006, when Luke was just thirteen and finishing his freshman year in high school.  (Mike was younger then, too.)  We put the final touches on the editing in the late summer and fall of 2014, with Luke by then twenty-two – just having graduated from Princeton University and on his way to California to start work as a software engineer.


When we began, our idea was to write a short, simple book on the Constitution, appropriate for student use, and correcting the abundance of myths that have accumulated around the usual textbook treatment of the Constitution.  We envisioned it as a one-summer project.  (How naïve we were!)  By the time we were finished, nine years later, we had a book we could be proud of, and that had become somewhat different: a comprehensive treatment of the U.S. Constitution and its history, from the Constitutional Convention to present-day disputes.  The book is more sophisticated than our original vision, but we held tightly to the goal of making the book reasonably short, reader-friendly, and lively – an intelligent introduction, rather than a treatise-like tome that nobody would really read.      


The story in brief: Michael had been a constitutional law professor for many years already.  In early 2006, he delivered a lecture at Princeton University (about constitutional issues presented by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – a topic now addressed in Chapter Seven of the book).  At the dinner-reception after the talk, a lively argument broke out over just how and when students and the general public acquired such mistaken notions about the Constitution.  Law professors blamed college professors; college professors blamed the schools and popular media. 


Michael announced the need for – and the shocking absence of – a sound, reliable, readable all-readers’ book on the Constitution, laying out the basics, correcting popular myths, and setting forth fairly the Constitution’s history of interpretation.  Those in attendance challenged Michael to do something about it, and not just curse the darkness.             


Bumped from his flight home the next day, Mike spent part of his three-hour delay in the Philadelphia airport sketching a book outline on two pages of yellow legal paper.  That night, he shared the outline with Luke – and the two devised a “summer job” proposal of a joint book project.  (It seemed more attractive than flipping burgers or bagging groceries, and it would be a chance for the two of us to work together on something of mutual interest.)   


As often happens with such things, one summer somehow turned into nine.  (Each year, we set the project aside for the beginning of the school year – first high school, then college.)  The project proved much more ambitious than we had envisioned, and took on a life of its own.    We found that it was (of course!) far easier to plan a book than actually to write it.  We also realized that there was a reason why so many textbook and media treatments of the Constitution are so shallow: it is hard to write simply and plainly, for general readers, without being reductionist or incomplete. 


Each summer we made more progress.  The book gradually became more serious and sophisticated –becoming much better: clearer, more finely honed.  No longer did it bear any resemblance to a book aimed only at students.  It had become a smart, taut, comprehensive-but-concise 300-page book designed for all readers interested in the Constitution – essentially the book that exists today.  We continued to insist that it would be accessible to general readers: smart but still simple and straightforward, rigorous but readable.


In the meantime, Luke had gone from a thirteen-year-old high school rookie to a twenty-two-year-old Princeton senior, majoring in Computer Science with certificates in Classics and Humanities.  He was destined for Silicon Valley, not law school – but he was co-author of what had become a major book on the Constitution and its history.  Michael, meanwhile, had published two other books, as editor or co-author, in addition to numerous scholarly articles, and moved from University of Minnesota to the University of St. Thomas.  (Some of Michael’s other scholarship is available on-line.)


The father-son book, once provisionally entitled The Constitution: An Intelligent Introduction and Brief History, still did not have a home.  A friend of a friend of a friend finally succeeded in getting the book before the eyes of the gifted Alex Littlefield of Basic Books, in the Spring of 2014.  Alex would become our fabulous editor.  He, and Lara Heimert, the Publisher of Basic Books, loved it and agreed to publish it.  They convinced us to lop off the word “Intelligent” – let the book speak for itself, they said – and go with the more simple title The Constitution: An Introduction.  The idea is that the title’s spare simplicity would convey well enough both the topic and the book’s goal of being simultaneously “authoritative” and still humble.     


And the rest was history (and editing).  The folks at Basic Books have been wonderful, and we are delighted with the final product.  We hope you will be, too. 


Writing a book together, with one’s son – or one’s father – has been a unique and deeply rewarding experience.  We came to know each other well through each other’s writing styles, habits, mistakes, and idiosyncratic foibles – and came to love and enjoy each other all the more.  We somehow get each other: the son understands the mind, and passions, of his father; the father got to see his son mature into a fabulous writer, editor, critic, and visionary with interests and opinions that sometimes differ from his dad’s – and to appreciate him in a whole new way, as a peer and friend.      


Michael Stokes Paulsen

Luke Paulsen

20 March 2015







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