People could do worse than follow Mr. Khan’s advice in how to read it, too. In an interview with NPR, Khan was asked to read aloud his favorite passage. He recited Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment, apologizing that “I lose my composure when I read these words.” Quoting the phrase “equal protection of the laws,” he said, “Try to understand the impact of these four, five words in our life.”
It is a good place to start: Section One is the center of the U.S. political system and scheme of individual rights. Reading the Constitution is an important exercise; but knowing how to read it is essential to the work.
In that respect, alas, the publishers of the best-selling pocket Constitution fall short. It’s an outfit called the National Center for Constitutional Studies, a conservative “think-tank” headquartered in Malta, Idaho. Some years ago, I enrolled in an NCCS Constitution “school” to discover what these indefatigable “constitutionalists” were teaching eager Tea Party patriots. The lessons I “learned” were disturbing—here’s the summary I gave at the time:
The Constitution is based on the Law of Moses; Mosaic law was brought to the West by the ancient Anglo-Saxons, who were probably the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; the Constitution restores the fifth-century kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. . . Social Security, the Federal Reserve, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, hate crime laws—all flatly violate God’s law. State governments are not required to observe the Bill of Rights; the First Amendment establishes “The Religion of America,” which is “nondenominational” Christianity.
The NCCS pocket Constitution, however, does faithfully reproduce the text. Readers should concentrate on that, ignoring the questionably relevant quotations in the pamphlet from “the Founding Fathers” and the document at the end, in which George Washington apparently asks each of us to sign a “pledge” drawn up by NCCS—a document he never saw.
But texts do not read themselves. If the NCCS is not a proper guide, then what is?
A reader could do worse than start with small books by two very fine historians. Jack Rakove, a masterful writer who has spent 30 years analyzing the quest for “original meaning” of the Constitution, is the editor of The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Although published by a university press, it is fully accessible to ordinary readers. Rakove has his own views, but he is a scrupulously honest scholar, and provides proper context for these two founding documents, without any reference to the Lost Tribes.
Slightly shorter, although no less trustworthy, is The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, a similar annotated guide by Richard Beeman. Beeman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, is also the author of a brilliant history of the Constitutional Convention, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the United States Constitution. Of course, none of the “plain honest men” who gathered in Philadelphia thought of their own subjective “intentions” as a source of law; the Constitution became law after a careful process of ratification by popular conventions. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788, by the late Pauline Maier, is the first history of that process, inviting and surprising as it outlines the bare-knuckle politics that consumed the nation in the months after Philadelphia.