- · vol. 2 · no. 4 · July 2002

Special Issue




"It annoys my students no end to be told that they revere something about which they know almost nothing but, if it gets them to read it, it's worth it."


Thomas P. Rossiter, Signing of the Constitution, ca. 1860-1870. Courtesy Independence National Historical Park. Click image to enlarge.

Electoral College: Rogers Smith | James Banner
The Clinton Impeachment: Joshua Micah Marshall | Jack Rakove
The Second Amendment: Michael Bellesiles | Joyce Malcolm
Women and the Constitution: Linda Kerber | Jan Lewis

Jill Lepore

Every October, midway through the fall semester, I deliver a lecture about the Constitutional Convention in my U.S. history survey course. I begin with three questions: How many of you have read the Constitution? Of more than a hundred students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, fewer than a dozen raise their hands. How many of you think the Constitution requires amendment? Maybe two or three, sitting, invariably, somewhere near the front of the lecture hall. How many of you think we ought to convene another Constitutional Convention and rewrite the Articles? This last is greeted by not one raised hand, not even by a quiet, anonymous nod from the class's most notorious radical. Instead, my class, to a person, glares at me, furious at my sacrilege.

My questions, of course, are intended to illustrate historian Michael Kammen's contention that our Constitution is "swathed in pride yet obscured by indifference: a fulsome rhetoric of reverence more than offset by the reality of ignorance." It annoys my students no end to be told that they revere something about which they know almost nothing but, if it gets them to read it, it's worth it.

Fig. 1. Panel from "Benjamin Franklin: A Biography," Classics Illustrated 65, 1949.

This roundtable discussion is intended to help us all reckon with our rhetoric and remedy our indifference. In eight paired essays, historians, political scientists, journalists, and lawyers examine the uses and abuses of the Constitution in contemporary American political affairs, from Bush v. Gore to the The Clinton Impeachment. Meanwhile, our regular columns in this special issue tackle everything from re-enacting the Convention to restoring the parchment on which the Constitution was written. "The men who framed the Constitution could not see into the future," Carol Berkin writes in A Brilliant Solution (November 2002), her forthcoming history of the Philadelphia Convention. But we can see into the past, and we can measure our world against their words. And, in case you didn't raise your hand in answer to my first question, you can read those words now.

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