In the days leading up to the Senate’s impeachment trial, some people hoped that Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, would use his position to send a strong message to the senators on what the Constitution requires of them. He had, in fact, already sent such a message, just weeks earlier, on what the Constitution requires of all Americans. On December 31, in a letter accompanying his annual report on the work of the federal courts, Roberts called on federal judges—and everyone else—to invest themselves in the preservation of constitutional democracy.
“Each generation,” he wrote, “has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.” For Roberts, this requires civic education—and something more fundamental than that, too.
He illustrated his point with a founding-era episode involving the nation’s first chief justice, John Jay. After Jay committed to joining Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in writing essays in defense of the proposed constitution, Jay was seriously wounded by a mob of New Yorkers who had been whipped into a frenzy by rumors of grave robberies. Jay’s wounds derailed his involvement in our nation’s greatest work of political philosophy, The Federalist Papers. “It is sadly ironic,” Roberts wrote, “that John Jay’s efforts to educate his fellow citizens about the Framers’ plan of government fell victim to a rock thrown by a rioter motivated by a rumor.”