Understanding legal documents: Jill Lepore on the U.S. Constitution

In the January 17, 2011 New Yorker, Jill Lepore—how I yearn to be teachable once again and have her as my history professor!—wrote a wonderful piece, “The Commandments: The Constitution and its worshippers.”

Not only does Prof. Lepore analyze how the right-wing conservative movement has raised what they think of as the U.S. Constitution up, up into the Celestial Local Library of Absolute Truth (where, next to that other bible, it is entombed under plexiglass to be equally misquoted and misunderstood), she picks through the density of the actual Constitution text and relates the history of the efforts to explain and interpret it.

Her piece resonates with me. I’ve already pointed out in Sidebar how legal documents are difficult to understand, and have suggested it’s because they’re an accretion derived from older documents. The Constitution is our original (pardon the expression) legal document, from whose loins all other legal documents spring. Lepore provides fascinating historical perspective on this thought.

Lepore says that we should all re-read the Constitution. (Such a noble assumption! This woman does not condescend: she assumes we’ve all read the Constitution at least once.) As for me, in a 2004 passion I re-wrote the Constitution after Bush was re-elected, in a desperate effort to separate Blue States from Red States. I did not then simply read the Constitution; I typed the whole thing into my computer, where it still resides, stirring restlessly as our politics sink backward toward 1890.

Here’s an excerpt from Jill Lepore’s piece, but read it all because it’s terrific, sometimes hilarious, always brilliant and, unlike legal documents including the Constitution, utterly comprehensible.

If you haven’t read the Constitution lately, do. Chances are you’ll find that it doesn’t exactly explain itself. Consider Article III, Section 3: “The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attained.” This is simply put—hats off to the committee of style—but what does it mean? A legal education helps. Lawyers won’t stumble over “attainder,” even if the rest of us will.


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