In Kevin Bleyer’s estimation, the Constitution of the United States has died the death of a few major cuts: “It has utterly failed in its simplest of duties: to solve all our problems, secure all our freedoms, and answer every single question put to it. Is that too much to ask?”
Bleyer, an Emmy Award-winning Daily Show writer, is not the first to write a book suggesting and offering a rewrite of the Constitution. However, Me the People is the first to include the imprimatur of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on its jacket, for whatever one considers that to be worth.
I read a lot about the Constitution and am very interested in its history. I did check a few facts and sought out a few details on certain points, but I did not do any extensive outside research to review this book. Most of the criticisms that I make are based my amateur knowledge.
I understand that Bleyer’s purpose in writing this book was to make readers laugh and think. The book is funny. Not hilarious, but amusing. Yes, some of his attempts at humor fall flat, but that is up for the individual reader to decide.
Bleyer obviously took this project seriously. In addition to the academic research that he did, he also travelled to Greece, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where he lunched with and interviewed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Perhaps most importantly, he joined the small number of Americans who have read the Constitution.
Me The People includes many important points about the founding fathers and the document that serves as “the Supreme Law of the Land.”
Many Americans believe that our forefathers were impeccable sages who all believed the same things and were nice enough to sit down to codify their thoughts for future generations. As for their boozing, smuggling, philandering, dueling, and slave-owning, well, nobody’s perfect.
As Bleyer writes, however, “At no time during the entire summer were all fifty-five delegates present in the Philadelphia Assembly Room at the same time, which puts lie to any unilateral claim today that, on any particular issue in 1787, ‘all the Founding Fathers believed [fill in the blank].’” He could have added that if they would have all been present throughout the entire summer, then they would have been disagreeing together instead of separately.
Bleyer also quotes James Madison, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as being far from completely satisfied with the work of the Second Constitutional Convention. These quotes, which Bleyer was not the first to unearth, puts lie to anyone’s claim—including Mitt Romney’s—that the Constitution was divinely inspired. (Unless, of course the founding fathers were too stupid to recognize divine inspiration when they saw it.)
Now, in order to demonstrate that I took the book at least as seriously as anyone should, allow me to make a couple of “serious” criticisms.
I appreciate that Bleyer gives proper credit (as did Madison) to Gouverneur Morris, the unknown-to-most-people Pennsylvania delegate, for the words of the Preamble and the style of the entire Constitution. However, he blames Morris for the “ponderous language” of the Preamble, which Bleyer also asserts is passionless, humorless, and lacking in poetry, especially when compared to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
When I read this, I wondered if Mr. Bleyer would have preferred the original language of the Preamble: “We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York [sic], New-Jersey [sic], Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina [sic], South-Carolina [sic], and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity.”
Sure, this version contained four fewer words, but was infinitely more ponderous. It isn’t even a “nice laundry list of noble aspirations,” which is how Bleyer describes Morris’s Preamble. It is just a list of states, some with superfluous hyphens.
Furthermore, it was Morris’ phrasing that transferred the emphasis from “We the people of the States” to “We the People of the United States.” Thus Morris, whom Bleyer feels the need to repeatedly point out was “peg-legged,” accentuated the pun-worthy phrase that provided the title of this book.
As to the Constitution’s contrast with the Declaration, the reason for the difference in style is stupidly simple. As those who cover political campaigns never tire of saying, “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.”
The Declaration of Independence was an eloquent campaign brochure for the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain. The Constitution, written eleven years later, consisted of the rules that would govern the United States. The summer of 1787 was no time for poetry. It was time to get down to business.
(Cleaning up is never as fun as having the party, is it?)
Me The People also includes two chapters about two individual states that Bleyer doesn’t like. The problem with the one about Nebraska is less Bleyer’s sterile dissing of flyover country than his failure to follow up on its perfunctory mention of what he (and many others) see as the unfairness of the fact that each state gets two Senators no matter what its population is.
Rhode Island, Bleyer writes, “ranks 50th in both population and total acreage, but it is #1 on my shit list.” The author is probably correct to criticize the Ocean State’s refusal to send delegates to the Second Constitutional Convention and its long delay in ratifying the Constitution. In focusing on the smallest state, however, he conveniently overlooks some similarly less flattering truths about his beloved state of New York.
Rhode Island has no signatures on the Constitution. Of the remaining twelve, New York is the lone state to have a mere one signatory. This is because two of its delegates didn’t like what the Convention was up to and took off after six weeks, leaving Alexander Hamilton alone in Philadelphia. Furthermore, Article VII of the Constitution required only nine states to ratify the document in order for it to take effect. Rhode Island was not one of the first nine, but neither was New York. Finally, New York’s enthusiasm for ratification of the Constitution was not much greater than that of Rhode Island’s: the former’s vote was 30 to 27, the latter’s was 34 to 32.
Bleyer conveniently overlooks this stuff. He also claims that Vermont, when it was not yet a state, ratified the Constitution before Rhode Island did. From what I can gather, that is factually inaccurate.
Finally, Me The People includes too many references to Nicolas Cage and the National Treasure movies. The author also credits himself with saying “Con-gress is the opposite of “pro-gress.” I heard author/linguist Richard Lederer say that about 20 years ago at a speech in Ohio.
Still, I liked the book a lot. While his rewriting of the articles and amendments is mostly satire, he does identify some important problems. It also includes an abundance of fun, interesting, important, and sometimes embarrassing information about allegedly great Americans.
And hey, any book that begins with three pages about Rexford Guy Tugwell–an obscure historical figure whose name will always be familiar to me, my history-buff dad, and older brother–is a-ok by me.
Me the People: One Man’s Selfless Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America
by Kevin Bleyer (@kevinbleyer)
JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
220 MORRISSEY BLVD.