by Garrett Epps, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore and a legal correspondent for theatlantic.com. His book, American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution, was published last month by Oxford University Press. This post is part of our 2013 Constitution Day symposium.
On Constitution Day, Americans gather to praise, celebrate, and revere our Constitution. If we work in, or are involved with, any institution receiving federal funds, we can expect to hear speeches praising the greatness of the Founders and the wisdom of their handiwork.
This Constitution Day, I suggest, we might do something harder in order to honor the Constitution.
Read it. All of it. Back to front.
Given that the document is not very long, reading the Constitution seems for Americans to be remarkably difficult. In part that’s because the Constitution’s mythological status makes the actual document all but invisible.
During the Constitution’s bicentennial year, famous novelist E.L. Doctorow tackled its text for an essay in The Nation and all but screamed with frustration. “It is five thousand words long but reads like fifty thousand,” he lamented. Getting to the end is a problem even for a brilliant reader.
The Constitution is 7,500 words long. The Amendments count too.
Or consider the 112th House of Representatives, inaugurated in January 2011. The new Republican majority wanted to show the nation how much they respected the Constitution. So they voted to begin the new session by reading it aloud.
Well, some of it. Turns out that, if you want to proclaim the “Founding Fathers” as the source of wisdom, there are parts of the Constitution that don’t read all that well. Slavery, y’know. So they took a blue pencil to the Constitution and read only the parts they liked. When it comes to the Constitution, in fact, cherry-picking is as American as cherry pie.