Among the ways that we hope to achieve common ground is through seeing if we can at least get people on the same page as to what issues and facts are being debated. Once that is achieved, debates and discourse should be somewhat easier. You have the same starting basis and then layer in the various nuances based on personal politics, values, demographics, and experiences. However, what happens when people presumably look at the same page and still see different interpretations and there is a failure to come to a consensus on what the words actually mean.
Perhaps the most hotly debated topic that has surfaced in the last couple of years has been the U.S. Constitution and what it actually was intended to mean. How many times of late have you heard someone say I have the RIGHT to do or not to do something because a certain amendment of the Constitution says I can? How many of us have actually sat down and read the entire document that we hold to be the guiding force of our nation’s laws? How strictly or broadly should the Constitution, written 231 years ago, be interpreted today? Understanding what the Constitution says, at least with some historical context might help us discuss its meaning in a more cogent manner and help us on the road to common ground.
This week we are recommending a book that explores the Constitution in a variety of ways beyond just reading the actual document. The author uses a creative approach to help readers gain insight. Joseph Tartakovsky’s The Lives of the Constitution, Ten Exceptional Minds that Shaped America’s Supreme Law is not a biography of 10 of the Founding Fathers but rather a mix of biography, history, and law that includes not just those present at the creation of the Constitution but those who have influenced it since. The stories range from Daniel Webster to Alexis de Tocqueville, from Ida B, Wells-Barnett to Antonin Scalia.
Tartakovsky is the former Deputy Solicitor General of Nevada. He is the James Wilson Fellow in Constitutional Law at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and an editor at the Claremont Review of Books. His book makes the Constitution in a sense more human by showing through these stories why the Constitution has made America unique.
His title comes not from a use of biographical details of 10 individuals but rather from his thesis that “the Constitution thrives because it is supported by all sorts of people — not simply the “Platonic guardians and it must be because there have been countless lives of the Constitution. As he argues, these are the “unknown Americans of all stripes” who “teach their children, even unconsciously, that the Constitution is noble and worthy of our affection and, at times, even our lives.”
One of the many points he does make is that we should not suppose that today, even the founders would have unanimity on issues or doctrine. As he said in a recent interview about his book:
“there is no such group as the “Founding Fathers.” Not as we use the term — as a band of brother-statesmen who stood united on constitutional questions and whose wisdom we have but to apply to our predicaments. We are indebted to the generation of 1787 for the philosophical and institutional fundamentals they gave us. But they fell out, bitterly, over the application of their handiwork: over the bank, control of foreign policy, the scope of the Commerce Clause, the contours of free speech.
Commentators should be fined for starting a sentence, “The Founders believed that….” Pick any issue today, and I suspect that they would clash over it, just as they did in their day. What our 230 years of life under the Constitution proves is that the task is not to ventriloquize the founders, as if we could, but to acknowledge the complexity and richness of their thought and try instead to confront our constitutional challenges with their learning, patriotism, and intensity.”