I was talking to Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale, and I was about to launch what I thought was a tough question, and I decided to soften him a bit first to make the blow land harder. “Okay,” I said, “You know every word and punctuation mark of the Constitution like you wrote it yourself…”
“Why thank you!” he said, lighting up. “I’m delighted to hear you say that.”
And he was, too, but then again, I found out in a long and fruitful day in his company that there isn’t much that doesn’t delight him. He was delighted to meet me, and my colleagues on the documentary on the Constitution for PBS, he was delighted to have us in our office and join us for a picnic in the Yale Law School courtyard, he was delighted to bring us to his (remarkable) home and introduce us to his (charming) family, but mostly and most importantly he is delighted by the Constitution: its text, its history, its legacy, its poetry, its meaning, its authors, for all I know – we didn’t actually get to that – he’s delighted by the very parchment its written on.
Akhil is not one of those guys who speaks in whole paragraphs; he speaks in chapters. I’d ask a question, and he’d say, “Okay, there are three good responses to that,” and then, yes, indeed, he would list and explain those three responses, and they will indeed be excellent ones. The standing joke around the crew – although it’s not really a joke – is that Akhil will be to this documentary what Shelby Foote was to Ken Burns’ “The Civil War:” the guy who knows the history so well, is so personally involved with it, that he seems to have been there when it happened.
Akhil has a number of interesting, extremely well-informed ideas about the Constitution. He refers to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 as the great “hinge of history,” in that it was the first time that any people anywhere were allowed to vote on their own form of government for themselves, in such great numbers and across such a vast expanse of land. The ratification, he says, as much or perhaps more than the document itself, marked the end of the long age of despotism and tyranny in human civilization, and launched humanity’s second era of democracy and self-government.
And, he says, we should consider the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Reconstruction Amendments, as a Second Framing, and we should venerate the drafters of those amendments as much as we do the Founding Fathers. The Reconstruction Amendments both corrected the deep flaw embedded in the original Constitution – its tolerance of slavery – and for the first time, via the 14th Amendment, the Constitution empowered the Federal Government to actually protect and defend civil rights, rather than merely refrain from “infringing” them.
(If you want a fuller accounting of Akhil’s ideas, consult his excellent book, America’s Constitution: a Biography.)
Akhil is a great talker, naturally enough for a man who seems to know everything about everything, but there was one moment, toward the very end of a long day, when he fell silent for a moment. Our executive producer, Steve Ives, asked him, simply, how he feels about the constitution. And he stared past my shoulder, for what seemed a long time, and then he said, “My relationship to this thing begins the day I was born. I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My parents were not US Citizens, they came over to go to medical school, and they were supposed to go back. But because of this document, the day I was born – I’m a US citizen! I’m protected by this! I have a right to stay! So my relationship with this is really intimate. This is the document that makes me an American. That’s amazing. That’s a great gift.”
I am a cynic by nature, and not inclined to idealism. That gotcha question I asked him – I won’t admit to remembering it – was probably one of my attempts to get him to admit that the Constitution, or at least the government it created, was flawed in some serious way. (Electoral college? Really?) But in face of Akhil Reed Amar’s deeply informed idealism, such cynicism seems undemocratic.