How would you feel about making changes in the U.S. Constitution? Does it need revising? Do we need a new one? The question almost sounds treasonous.
The Constitution is one of history's greatest documents.
We revere it. We swear to uphold and defend it.
It permeates every element of our lives.
But how many of us know what's in it? How many Americans have read this document that has guided our republic for more than 200 years? Perhaps by dint of pop culture reference, or our coarse and sorely misinformed public discourse, some might be able to say something about the Second Amendment, or the Fifth, and parts of the First can you name the four freedoms off the top of your head?
How many Americans know how many amendments are in the Bill of Rights, let alone the entire Constitution?
Ten and 27, if you're keeping score.
Throughout his life and in his letters, Thomas Jefferson stressed the need for Americans to routinely revisit the Constitution "to see if it hangs directly on the will of the people." He often mocked those who viewed constitutions "like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched," believing instead that each generation was independent of the other, and that "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
"As new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed," he argued, "institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times."
Often, our laws fall behind. The 14th Amendment's citizenship clause was intended to address matters of slavery, not immigration, yet its language, tested and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, sanctions birthright citizenship.
Indeed, for much of the 19th century, white, male, taxpaying, property-holding immigrants who were not U.S. citizens could vote in federal elections, a practice finally undone by the xenophobic nationalism born of World War I.
When the Constitution was approved, "We the People" included only white, landowning, taxpaying males. In order to form a more perfect union today, should we clarify in the Constitution's preamble who "We the People" are? What is an American citizen today? Is it one who helps "promote the general welfare," as the preamble states, or is it something else?
The awkwardly written Second Amendment is an exercise in exegetic thinking; you can interpret it however you like and the Supreme Court has. A broad interpretation in 1939 was that the amendment guaranteed no individual right to bear arms unless that individual was a member of a state militia, and only then, for weapons commonly used in militias. In 2008, by defining the meaning of the controversial clauses and commas "as we think," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion, the court supported the individual's right to bear arms.
Sixty years hence, a different court of different grammatical bent may rule entirely differently. Could we take a stab at revision, devising an amendment with greater clarity of language?
Such reflections lie at the core of an ongoing series of "Constitutional Cafes" launched by author Christopher Phillips who, for more than a decade, has traveled the nation to ask groups of people of disparate regions and dispositions how they would revise the Constitution.
"It's an exercise that people take quite seriously," he tells me. "It enables them to actually read the documents and discuss them."
He presents those discussions in his recent book, "Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution." In it, three things are striking:
The interest in vastly diverse aspects of law, from the patent clause to lowering the voting age.
The imperfections one finds in nearly every amendment proposed in these various discussions.
The occasional broad and seemingly unbridgeable schisms, wherein participants are so divided that they craft two conflicting versions of a single amendment proposal.
This rich, cacophonous mixture may well be the point: The enormous challenge of crafting a representative Constitution requires vigorous and sometimes difficult debate, and reminds us that we are a pluralistic society of dissimilar but equally passionate needs, wants and desires, each deserving of empathy and respect from us all.
"It's important for people of very different perspectives to come together and try to make a heartfelt attempt to see if there is foundational common ground," Phillips says. "This is something Jefferson had in mind in revisiting the Constitution every 20 years. One side might win the day for a while, but there'll be another day to reconsider."
The even larger point: The purpose of such dialogue, civic engagement, intimacy with our framing documents and, dare I say, compromise, is not necessarily to come up with The Answers, but a way for the public to collaborate in seeking them, and as Jefferson counsels, in reseeking them.
In the process, one also discovers parts of the Constitution made obsolete by a world changing rapidly and in ways its framers could never have imagined. Other parts seem to have been long forgotten. Still other rules we think are in it, never were, yet we dogmatically believe them to be permanent legal bedrocks.
Nowhere in the Constitution does it fix the limit on the number of Supreme Court justices or how long they can serve. Yet we think that carved in stone: Nine justices serving for life. It doesn't say nine. It doesn't say they have to serve for life; it says they'll serve as long as they practice "good behavior."
So the idea of an amendment defining term limits for those justices really isn't necessary unless, of course, we wanted to enshrine it in writing.
Nor does the Constitution fix the membership of the House of Representatives at 435. The Constitution says you can have one representative for every 30,000 constituents. Given Congress' low approval rating, the idea of making it bigger might seem insane, though one could argue that one person representing 700,000 people the current ratio is equally insane.
On the other hand, can we trust our present Congress to rewrite any portion of our Constitution? With all the agendas, no-compromise attitudes, wackiness and misinformation in our political culture, it's hardly certain we'd end up with any improvement.
But how would we citizens be able to tell when our civic literacy is so shoddy and are we electing civic illiterates as a result?
Phillips, who returns to California in May for another series of "Cafes," including stops in Lodi and El Dorado Hills, says, "I guarantee you most of our elected officials wouldn't even know the basics of the Constitution, let alone the minutiae.
"It's like quoting little snippets from Freud without having read Freud."
So that leaves it to us. Jefferson believed an engaged and enlightened citizenry was "indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic," but engagement is useless without knowledge.
All the more reason, in this, the month of Jefferson's birth, to develop an intrinsic relationship with our framing documents beyond the schoolbook memorization of numbers, dates and platitudes. Only then can we effectively and relentlessly reassess how well the tenets of our Constitution serve us, demanding revisions when they don't.
This was Jefferson's corrective for societal inertia in American democracy. Though he reminds us in the Declaration of Independence that revolution, when necessary, was our duty as citizens, he saw the Constitution as an alternative, as a way to build common cause among Americans while perpetuating the nation's original revolutionary spirit.
His vision wasn't taken seriously in his time, but its undertaking is long overdue.
HOW WOULD YOU REVISE THE CONSTITUTION?
Vote on our suggested amendments above. We'll follow up on May 6 with results and some of your suggestions for amending the Constitution.
To write a letter, go to www.sacbee.com/sendletter
READ THE U.S. CONSTITUTION
Go to www.usconstitution.net