Written in Stone? Yes. A Living Document? Ditto. Two Experts Explain the Constitution.

09/16/2010 07:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's the source of America's greatness?

For Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes -- a professor and a journalist -- our "extraordinary success" is not because of our square-jawed politicians or our innovative businessmen or our hard-working farmers.

It's our "unique form of government."

Their starting point: Our form of government is "self-contained." There's no Higher Authority, either in the form of God or king. The Constitution acknowledges that people are selfish and generally care only about themselves; it forces us to compromise for the greater good.

In short, our 7,000-word Constitution is a radical philosophical breakthrough that's also rubber-meets-the-road practical.

And the result? The longest-lived democracy in the history of the world.

Lane and Oreskes were sufficiently alarmed by their countrymen's dangerous ignorance of American history to write The Genius of America, a 220-page primer on the Constitution. [To buy a bargain hardcover from, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Lane and Oreskes begin by telling the story of the years between 1776 and 1787, when the success of the American experiment was anything but certain. We've all studied that period; I had forgotten almost everything about its divisiveness. And its aftermath: Do you remember, for example, that in 1798 John Adams and his allies criminalized criticism of their activities -- and arrested their critics?

Entire books have been written about the years leading up to the Bill of Rights; for Lane and Oreskes, it's just the prequel. The real protein in these pages is what happened next -- challenges to the system from the Confederacy to Martin Luther King to women's rights, seen through a Constitutional perspective.

For me, the most fascinating passages are about events of the last century -- in historical terms, "current events." I thought I was up on the Depression, but I had no idea that, in Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address, he got a huge ovation for suggesting he might need extraordinary powers to deal with the economic crisis. And FDR wasn't alone; Barron's Magazine called for a "genial and lighthearted dictator."

As it worked out, FDR found other ways to get what he wanted. But surviving the Depression and emerging as a superpower after World War II didn't dampen that conversation. Our recent history suggests that we don't agree on much -- Lane and Oreskes frame the story of the last half-century as a debate between government-as-problem and government-as-solution.

Starting with Ronald Reagan, they write, Americans began to question the value of once-sacred institutions. To say this worries them is to understate: "We make mistakes as a country when we move away from how our system was built to work." Their warning is stark: "The wrong crisis at the wrong moment could push us over the edge before we realize what we have done."

The important contribution of this small book is to remind us that democracy is fragile -- and that we should not despair at the debate we are having. The framers would smile at our struggles; they knew them well. And they would presumably tell us what Lane and Oreskes do: Look back, look back. If we want to move forward, for the sake of our democracy, look back.

[Cross-posted from]