Knowing the Constitution

Why did we write a book about the Constitution? And why should you read it?

No, wait. Before we can answer those questions, there's an even simpler one that we have to answer. Why should we care about the Constitution at all? After all (someone might say), it was adopted over 200 years ago, and these days we usually leave its interpretation to a very small, specialized group of lawyers, judges, and academics. To many people, it might appear that the Constitution has very little to do with the day-to-day operation of government or our interactions with it. What is it that makes a book about the Constitution for a general audience worth writing, or worth reading?

In part it's the first sentence of the Constitution itself: "WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union... do Ordain and Establish this Constitution." From the very beginning, the Constitution's legitimacy was built on the will of the people. As Abraham Lincoln later said, it established a government "of the people, by the people, for the people". And if the people do not understand how that government works-- if we do not understand what the Constitution says-- then how can it be based on the will of the people? Understanding the Constitution is crucial for preserving it and the democratic system of government it creates.

There’s more to it than that, though. In practice the people do not run the government directly: they leave that to their elected representatives. But the framers of the Constitution understood that no single part of the government could be trusted with all of the power. In the Constitution's system of separation of powers, each branch of government has its own independent powers and an independent responsibility to follow the Constitution. And in the case of a conflict between the branches, We the People are often the ones who can break the stalemate through democratic elections.

It is essential to the Constitution's separation of powers that wrong constitutional interpretations by one part of the government can be checked by other parts, and ultimately by the people. In recent times the Supreme Court-- the smallest and least democratic branch of government-- has tended to claim supreme authority over the Constitution’s meaning. But Congress and the President, the branches that are elected by the people, have a duty to interpret the Constitution for themselves. And, more controversially, that duty may extend to institutions like state governments and even juries, where average citizens can be directly involved in interpreting and applying the Constitution.

At many crucial points in American history, the nation’s direction has come down to a dispute over what the Constitution means—and over who gets to decide. The stakes are high in these constitutional conflicts. What is each branch of government allowed to do? What is it required to do? A wrong answer could upset the Constitution’s separation of powers. If one part of the government has the power to coerce the others, then representative government itself may be in danger. In situations like these, we can only appeal to the true source of authority under the Constitution: the decision of the people. America’s system of government ultimately rests on the people’s ability to understand their Constitution.

Our book is meant, in part, to correct myths about the Constitution. And the first and greatest modern myth about the Constitution is that we don't need to care about it in the first place-- that a small group of experts can be the authoritative and infallible judges of what it means. Nothing could be further from the truth. We the People have established the Constitution, and it is our duty as citizens to care about its meaning. Until we do that, there is no point in correcting any of the other misconceptions about the Constitution or its history. The first thing we have to understand about the Constitution is that it is worth understanding.

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