Summer Reading: What's in Our Constitution?

Know your Constitution. Listen to James Madison’s most important writings in a 37-minute audiobook.As of today (August 22), the 2012 Presidential and General Election is 442 days away. Do we have the “constitution” to make it all the way given what we’ve already witnessed?

Pun aside, how well do we and the many candidates vying for office understand the fundamental governing principles set forth by the Founding Brothers more than 200 years ago? The average American’s understanding of the U.S. Constitution is limited.

“Fewer people than you may think have actually read or heard the Constitution,” observes Deaver Brown, narrator of “The United States Constitution,” by James Madison.

So, add to your summer reading list this short reading of the Constitution and a few basic facts about the birth of the ”supreme law” of the land. “United States Constitution” (Simple Magazine, Inc.) may be downloaded for $1.95 through iTunes, Amazon and other book sources.

The audiobook may be listened to In almost the same time — 37 minutes ­— it takes a MAX light rail train to travel from the Beaverton Transit Center to Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.

Brown stresses reading and rereading the book as an economic and productive use of time. It is something all of us should do before much more of the campaign season passes. This is a good time to get grounded in the basic rules guiding our republic. The book is easy listening. Considered the primary author of the Constitution, Madison’s 18th Century lawyerly language surprisingly is clear and precise.

Not counting the first 10 amendments (the Bill of Rights), the Constitution has only been changed 17 times. It is remarkable to think how much has changed in the world since the Constitution became law, says Brown, but how so little has changed in this document.

Background: Steps to a new government

In addition to reading the Constitution's original text, Brown narrates a brief bit of background about why Madison and others urged a new governing framework: Congress passed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. When New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it in 1788, providing the necessary to-thirds majority, the Constitution became the foundation for our system of government. The roles of the states and the new centralized federal government were spelled out. So, too, were the individual rights of most citizens.

The new union formed during the Revolution war years was fragile. Not until months after George Washington had been installed as the first president in 1789 under the new government did North Carolina and Rhode Island sign on. Otherwise the states that failed to ratify the Constitution would have been left out of the new nation.

The Constitution was the third important document to come out of the revolutionary era, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the basis for the young nation’s first government. The Articles were seen as a governing tool for wartime and inadequate for fostering commerce and protecting the emerging nation.

Madison and representatives from five other states quietly met in Annapolis in 1786 to start planning a Constitutional Convention the following year in Philadelphia. Though only Madison and a few others had given thought to the Virginia Plan, an outline for a new Constitution, the assumption by most was that the purpose of the Philadelphia gathering was to simply tweak the Articles.

Once in Philadelphia, in May 1787, delegates voted to hold secret discussions. Much to the general public’s surprise, an entirely new system of governance emerged. Congress eventually approved the proposed Constitution, sending it to the states for ratification. Madison became a leading advocate for passage, authoring 40 percent of the Federalist Papers. The series of pamphlets argued for a centralized federal government.

“The key element of the Constitution is divided power,” notes Wikipedia. “Having just fought an eight-and-a-half-year war (the Revolutionary War) to get rid of too much concentrated power (a king), the Framers had no interest in recreating that, even with an elected government. So, they divided power. They divided power between the federal government and the state governments. And, they divided power within the federal government, forming three branches.”

When it comes to staging televised presidential debates next year, perhaps the moderator should skip the question about the price of bread, and ask the candidates what’s in Article Two of the Constitution?