The Law Library hosted Yale Law School constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar in commemoration of Constitution Day on Tuesday, September 16. Professor Amar’s lecture, “Magna Carta and the United States Constitution,” celebrated the signing of the United States Constitution 227 years ago on Sept. 17, 1787 and served as the third lecture in the Magna Carta lecture series.
The lecture highlighted the ways in which the United States Constitution has drawn upon and broken with English constitutional precursors such as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Professor Amar also gave a captivating account of how the United States Constitution evolved through the reconstruction amendments and later political movements such as women’s suffrage.
Professor Amar began his remarks by describing the unprecedented transformation that resulted from the drafting of the Constitution. We received the promise of freedom, self-governance and the open invitation of ordinary men to voice their opinions through freedom of speech and voter participation. All of these freedoms were granted at a time when monarchical governments ruled many other nations. As he stated “[f]ree speech is baked into our constitutional cake, unwritten, but it is part of the very process by which, We the People of the United States, in this year  that changed everything, did ordain and establish the Constitution, even before it is textualized in the first amendment.”
The original Constitution was revolutionary for the times, but Professor Amar also pointed out that it was “conciliatory toward slavery” by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person, which allowed Southern States to gain more power in the House and Electoral College. He reminded the audience that Thomas Jefferson wrote the phrase “all men are created equal” for the Declaration of Independence and that phrase did not appear in the Constitution until President Lincoln reinterpreted the language to abolish slavery with the 13th amendment.
Professor Amar also argued that later generations continue to reinterpret the Constitution through the prism of later constitutional amendments. Women suffragists, for example, would include women in Lincoln’s reinterpretation of “all men are created equal” to bolster their movement. Similarly, he described how this tradition of interpretation and even misinterpretation extends back to Magna Carta because later generations believe Magna Carta is about trial by jury. He argued that Magna Carta in 1215 was not about trial by jury as we know it because “peers” referred to lords and barons only and not the guarantee of the right to due process of law for ordinary men.
Professor Amar concluded his lecture stating that “today we are the product of many generations of constitutional advancement,” so perhaps it does not matter if Jefferson did not really mean “all men are created equal” or if Magna Carta did not truly represent trial by jury in 1215 because later generations were inspired to redefine their meaning. According to Professor Amar, what really matters is an understanding of our history and a realization that our Constitution has evolved as “We the People” have evolved. Our Constitution is both written and unwritten – the unwritten part is a reflection of how we act and what we believe as a nation. We get to decide what constitution we will give to future generations.
The exhibition “Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor” will celebrate the 800th anniversary of the first issuance of Magna Carta. Opening November 6, 2014 and running through January 19, 2015, the 10-week exhibition will feature the Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta, one of four remaining originals from 1215, along with other rare materials from the Library’s rich collections to tell the story of Magna Carta’s influence on the history of the rule of law.
The Magna Carta lecture series is co-sponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress.
Update: Event video added below.