The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

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