What would America's Constitutions have looked like if each generation wrote its own?
"The earth belongs...to the living, the dead have neither powers nor rights over it." These famous words, written by Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, reflect Jefferson's lifelong belief that each generation ought to write its own Constitution. According to Jefferson each generation should take an active role in endorsing, renouncing, or changing the nation's fundamental law. Perhaps if he were alive today to witness our seething debates over the state of American politics, he would feel vindicated in this belief.
Madison's response was that a Constitution must endure over many generations to gain the credibility needed to keep a nation strong and united. History tells us that Jefferson lost that debate. But what if he had prevailed? In A Constitution for the Living, Beau Breslin reimagines American history to answer that question. By tracing the story from the 1787 Constitutional Convention up to the present, Breslin presents an engaging and insightful narrative account of historical figures and how they might have shaped their particular generation's Constitution.
Readers are invited to join the Founders in candlelit taverns where, over glasses of wine, they debated fundamental issues; to witness towering figures of American history, from Abraham Lincoln to Booker T. Washington, enact an alternate account through startling and revealing conversations; and to attend a Constitutional Convention taking place in the present day. These possibilities come to life in the book's prose, with sensitivity, verve, and compelling historical detail.
This book is, above all, a call for a more engaged American public at a time when change seems close at hand, if we dare to imagine it.
About the author
Beau Breslin is Professor of Political Science at Skidmore College. He is the author of From Words to Worlds (2009) and The Communitarian Constitution (2004, 2006).
"A fascinating work of counterfactual history. Breslin offers consistently fruitful insights that are not only stimulating, but also edifying about the political controversies that have raised deep questions about the adequacy of the existing Constitution."
—Sanford Levinson, coauthor of Fault Lines in the Constitution
"This remarkably creative and daring book is a work of deep scholarship and imagination. The result is an illuminating and thought-provoking survey of American constitutional history and ideas. A pleasure to read, and a rewarding exploration of the constitutional words that have been and that might have been."
—Keith E. Whittington, Princeton University
"A lively, riveting act of political imagination. In telling of an alternative American constitution-making process, one in which sequential constitutional conventions had addressed national disputes over issues such as slavery, suffrage, and labor rights, Breslin ably contends that the current reverence for – coupled with a near-total disengagement from – the founding document has it all wrong. And in bringing to life two centuries of constitutional actors and debates, he boldly invites us to step in and reclaim a process and core values that are anything but imaginary."
—Dahlia Lithwick, Senior Legal Correspondent, Slate
"Beau Breslin takes readers on a fascinating, richly informed, and highly instructive thought experiment. What if Americans had rewritten their constitution every generation, as Jefferson suggested they should? Imagining what might have been can help all to see more clearly what might yet be today."
—Rogers M. Smith, University of Pennsylvania