THE BLOG
11/08/2014 09:58 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2015

Ask Not What Your Republic Can Do For You

Whenever I enter the capacious main entrance of the National Constitution Center, I take pause when I pass by this quote by Teddy Roosevelt that's etched in the wall: "The people themselves must be the ultimate makers of their own Constitution."

How do you become a "maker" of the Constitution? Does that mean you have to be a Framer of the Constitution itself? Or try to amend it? Or try to become more active in the civic arena in ways that bring the promise of the Constitution, as you into it, into actual practice? Roosevelt meant that we each should be able to weigh in on what it means, on how it's interpreted -- to the extent that, if we the people differ markedly, we "should be given the chance... to settle what interpretation it is that [our] representatives shall therefore adopt as binding."

Above and beyond the fact that this has proven to be easier said than done, it seems to me that in order to be a 'Constitution' maker, we must regularly immerse ourselves in our supreme law of the land and familiarize ourselves with it, determine what we take it to mean -- not necessarily once for all, but perhaps on an ongoing basis. Some may decide it's 'organic' in a way that lends itself to ever new interpretation over time; others that it is fixed, unchanging. What matters is to consult it, ponder it continually, talk with others about it, read books about it, as a way of discovering and clarifying your own answers. It almost can't help but give you a greater appreciation for the extraordinary fete of our Framers, even if and as you might find fault with some of it.

I believe that in order to "find" our constitutional republic here and now -- better understand, appreciate and discover what it was, is, and will or might be down the road -- it's important to make it a habit to reflect on it. Better still, it will make you a better 'maker' of your republic, as you ideally become inspired to become more engaged, more committed to making it one that elevates one and all.

I find the Constitution endlessly fascinating in its own right, and a great springboard for inquiries of many sorts. Some of you might know of my Socrates Café groups, which I inaugurated all the way back in 1996 and which now take place in a variety of venues -- cafés, libraries, community centers, college campuses, schools, among others -- in the U.S. and around the globe. Others might be more familiar with my Constitution Café project (and by my book of the same name), inspired in large part by fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson but also in many important respects by James Madison. In this latest dialogue initiative, I travel across the fruited plain engaging Americans from diverse backgrounds and with a rich variety of perspectives in important "constitutional conversations."

One of the central reasons I inaugurated this was not only because I believe that a vibrant constitutional republic hinges on an informed and involved citizenry, but that this in turn makes it incumbent to think deeply about our Constitution, how it impacts us, molds us, singly and together, and how we in many ways return the favor.

With hundreds of Constitution Café dialogues now under my belt, I'm pleased to report that most participants in the Constitution Café -- including yours truly -- leave these exchanges with a deeper and more abiding appreciation of and curiosity about the extraordinary document crafted by our Framers. We also often come away with a keener sense of possibilities and prospects for how we might involve ourselves in our unique experiment with republican government. Needless to say, I certainly have become even more intrigued about constitutional matters.

This has been a springboard for continual explorations of the Constitution, inspiring me to ponder, alone and with others, our supreme law of the land with even more frequency. As I return to it again and again, and read an array of works by scholars and pundits and other thoughtful writers that deal with both timely and timeless constitutional matters, I come to value it even more -- and this motivates me to continue to probe and plumb and mine its rich contents. I find meaning in this exercise, and I become ever more appreciative of our republic -- and become ever more committed to ask less of it, and more of myself.

This post was adapted from one that was earlier posted on the blog of the National Constitution Center.