Monday, September 12, 2011

The Birthday List, Item #5: Read the Constitution

When I was in the sixth grade, we celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the drafting of the US Constitution by memorizing the classic "We are the People" preamble. In the fall of 1994, I took American National Government at the University of Utah, and enjoyed the course so much I briefly* considered the option of being a Political Science major. Five years ago, on my first (and so far only) trip to Washington DC, I dropped by the National Archives to see the original manuscripts of the Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence.

On the way out, I bought a snow globe commemorating the day Elvis met Nixon.

Somehow, in all that time, I never actually sat down and read the Constitution. Not very patriotic of me. But this birthday list thing seemed like an ideal opportunity to remedy that problem, so one afternoon in late July, I googled "US Constitution" and wound up on the government-run "Charters of Freedom" website, where I read the Constitution transcript in full.

What I came away with was surprising. Surprising in that I was pretty familiar with most everything I read. No big shocks, no, "wait a minute, there's a LAW against that?" moments. I may not be the most studied student of US History, but I was already familiar with the setup of the three branches of government, so what I was most surprised by was how simple the Constitution is.

And maybe that's what is so great about it.

It also occurred to me that the Constitution is probably a lot like a groundbreaking movie (if you'll excuse the tacky pop culture allusion). For example, it's widely accepted that the first real movie car chase took place in the 1968 Steve McQueen film "Bullitt," as McQueen chases some bad guys through the streets of San Francisco in a green Mustang GT. It's a pretty cool scene, but 40 years of car chases in the time since have kind of upped the ante a bit, so anyone raised on, say, the car chases from the Bourne movies are going to look and "Bullitt" and go, "hey, that's lame." (They might also go, "hey, why does Steve McQueen keep driving past that same Volkswagen Bug over and over?", but that's off topic.)

What I'm trying to say is that I think the Constitution is one of those things that's easier to appreciate if you put it in the context of its time. Growing up as a lifetime beneficiary of the document's principles make it a lot harder to comprehend what life was like before it was around, or what life would be if I had grown up without it. Like so many of life's great blessings, it's easy to take it for granted.

*Briefly = About 30 seconds