We caught up with constitutional scholars Richard Beeman and Christopher Phillips the other day, and asked a few questions.
Beeman wrote the annotated "Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution," which also includes the constitutional amendments, Declaration of Independence and an examination of "crucial Supreme Court cases" (Penguin, $12, 224 pages). It is described as "a marvel of accessibility and erudition."
Phillips is the author of "Constitution Cafe," in which he "sets off on a rollicking cross-country junket to engage Americans of all classes to rewrite the Constitution. Those 'framers' weigh in with wild and worthwhile ideas about how our nation should be governed" (W.W. Norton, $15.95, 336 pages).
The two authors will highlight the Sacramento Public Library's eighth annual One Book Sacramento program in separate appearances at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., adjoining downtown's Central Library. Beeman will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday; Phillips is set for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18.
Beeman is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Phillips is a senior fellow in the critical writing program at the same university.
For Phillips' appearance, The Bee will partner with the Sacramento Public Library to co-host a special edition of the Bee Book Club. Phillips will discuss his goal to "generate a new constitutional convention to help Americans better understand and challenge our most fundamental freedoms."
One Book Sacramento, continuing through October, asks the community to read the two books and participate in events online and at library branches, schools and other venues. The free "One Book Sacramento Program Guide" to all activities and events is available at all 28 library locations.
For a complete schedule and more information: www.saclibrary.org.
In recent years, critics have charged that the Constitution is outdated. True? Or does its adaptability and interpretive nature make it a living document?
Beeman: For some Supreme Court justices, the phrase "living document" is a no-no. They believe in a kind of immutable text. But anybody who has a sense of the Constitution's history and how it has evolved understands that it has proven amazingly adaptable.
What makes the framers of the Constitution so impressive is not that they were great thinkers, but that they were "thinking politicians." If you watched the (recent) Republican and Democratic national conventions, you can decide for yourself how many "thinking politicians" you heard.
Phillips: One sign of our Constitution's outmodedness is that in the 1970s it was the template for any changes to the constitutions of emerging democracies or countries seeking to update or overhaul their own constitutions. Today, rarely is our constitution looked at as a template. (Other countries) tend to look at Canada's constitution, which focuses on a wide array of rights. Our (constitution) is very stingy (with its rights).
Also, I would argue whether it's really adaptable and interpretive, or whether we're just making it that way because nobody wants to start over again from scratch. The president, the Supreme Court justices and Congress read into it anything they want, then haggle over what it's really supposed to mean.
I believe they have egregiously stepped outside the very strict parameters within which the Constitution operates.
Do we take our Constitution for granted?
Beeman: No. I can't remember a time when so many Americans have been more passionately interested in the Constitution. Unfortunately, a lot of that interest is driven by partisan bickering, and by some people being convinced that their understanding of the Constitution is the right one and (everybody else's) is wrong. More than any other document, it helps us define our values and who we are. That's why we argue about it so much.
Phillips: There is constitutional illiteracy in our country. A 2010 survey by the Center for the Constitution asked Americans if they would make changes to the Constitution. Most older folks said they would not, most younger voters said they would. What did they both have in common? They hadn't read it, even though it permeates every aspect of our lives.
There are 27 amendments to the Constitution. If you could add one, what would it be?
Beeman: I would impose a very strict limit on campaign contributions, greatly reducing the effect that money has on our political process.
Phillips: I would add the right to vote. You might say that's in there, but the Constitution never explicitly says anywhere that you have the right to vote. It's an extraordinary oversight that has never been addressed.
Of the 10 amendments that compose the Bill of Rights, which one is the most vital?
Beeman: Freedom of expression those (rights) embodied in the First Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and the right to peaceful assembly. The freedom of expression carries over into the freedom of religion, as well.
Phillips: The First Amendment as a whole freedoms of speech, the press, peaceful assembly, religious practice and petition. Those are at the heart of what a democratic nation is all about. Shouting from the rafters early and often is what keeps a democracy peaceable. The more that elected officials try to quiet the people, the more we become a closed society.
What is the biggest threat to the Constitution?
Beeman: At the moment, it's the excessive power of money in the operation of our political process.
Phillips: That we are oblivious to it. It's not simply that the Supreme Court is exercising powers it was never given, nor that the Congress has ceded to the president the right to declare war. The danger is when they are allowed to circumvent the Constitution at will.
How do you perceive the future of the Constitution?
Beeman: I'm cautiously optimistic.
Phillips: There are a lot of calls from people of all political stripes to have a new constitutional convention. The framers accomplished a brilliant feat, but they would have wanted us to make changes in the Constitution.
I am very mindful of all that, but I say, "Not so fast." Don't hold (a constitutional convention) until you really understand and appreciate the document we have. Right now, we don't do either.