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A.J. Jacobs — Living Constitutionally: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution’s Original Meaning

The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution's Original Meaning (book cover)

A.J. Jacobs learned the hard way that donning a tricorne hat and marching around Manhattan with a 1700s musket will earn you a lot of strange looks. In the wake of several controversial rulings by the Supreme Court and the ongoing debate about how the Constitution should be interpreted, Jacobs set out to understand what it means to live by the Constitution.

In The Year of Living Constitutionally, A.J. Jacobs tries to get inside the minds of the Founding Fathers by living as closely as possible to the original meaning of the Constitution. He asserts his right to free speech by writing his opinions on parchment with a quill and handing them out to strangers in Times Square. He consents to quartering a soldier, as is his Third Amendment right. He turns his home into a traditional 1790s household by lighting candles instead of using electricity, boiling mutton, and—because women were not allowed to sign contracts—feebly attempting to take over his wife’s day job, which involves a lot of contract negotiations.

The book blends unforgettable adventures—delivering a handwritten petition to Congress, applying for a Letter of Marque to become a legal pirate for the government, and battling redcoats as part of a Revolutionary War reenactment group—with dozens of interviews from constitutional experts from both sides. Jacobs dives deep into originalism and living constitutionalism, the two rival ways of interpreting the document.

Much like he did with the Bible in The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs provides a crash course on our Constitution as he experiences the benefits and perils of living like it’s the 1790s. He relishes, for instance, the slow thinking of the era, free from social media alerts. But also discovers the progress we’ve made since 1789 when married women couldn’t own property.

Now more than ever, Americans need to understand the meaning and value of the Constitution. As politicians and Supreme Court Justices wage a high-stakes battle over how literally we should interpret the Constitution, A.J. Jacobs provides an entertaining yet illuminating look into how this storied document fits into our democracy today.

AJ Jacobs (photo by Sharon Schuur)

A.J. Jacobs is a journalist, lecturer, and human guinea pig whose books include Drop Dead Healthy, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Puzzler. A contributor to NPR, The New York Times, and Esquire, among other media outlets, Jacobs lives in New York City with his family. His new book is The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution’s Original Meaning.

Shermer and Jacobs discuss:

  • what possessed him to spend a year living constitutionally and biblically
  • what the Constitution really says and means
  • Constitutional originalism
  • what’s behind the Supreme Court’s rulings on guns, religion, women’s rights and more
  • what happens if you become an ultimate originalist and follow the Constitution using the mindset and tools of the Founders
  • why originalism is not the best approach
  • what happened when he carried a musket on the streets of NYC
  • why firing an 18th century musket takes 15 steps. It would be hard to conduct a mass shooting with a musket.
  • how he gave up social media in favor of writing pamphlets with a quill pen
  • how he fined his sons thirty-seven and a half cents for every time they cursed, as was the constitutionally-approved law in New York State in 1789
  • 18th century view of rights was very different. (They did not see rights as trump cards. Rights had to be balanced against the common good. So free speech was actually much more constricted. Neither conservatives nor progressives would want the 18th century free speech.)
  • what the 18th century was really like: it was a racist, sexist, smelly, dangerous time
  • Ideas from the 18th century worth preserving:

    • cold takes instead of hot takes
    • election cakes (elections in the 18th century were festive. (This was a new right. They had music, parades, and cake.)
    • responsibilities and virtue. (They balanced the idea of rights with the idea of virtue and the pubic good.)
    • epistemic humility and changing one’s mind
    • news detoxes (They got their news twice a week. That allowed them time to think about it instead of always being in reactive rage mode).
  • what the founders got right and wrong

    • They were elitists, and installed counter-majoritarian measures in the Constitution that are still problems today (like the Electoral College).
    • They would be shocked at today’s government, and how the president is far too powerful.
    • The Founders were fearful of monarchy and authoritarianism. They would not be happy with the office of president today.
    • Why the Founders considered three co-presidents because no single person should have that much power.
    • They would be shocked by how powerful SCOTUS is. Most Founders didn’t think it would be the final say on the Constitution.
    • They would be shocked by the Supermajority rule in the Senate. That is not in the Constitution.
  • The Constitution

    • Frederick Douglass’ idea that the Constitution is a promissory note. It contains ideals like liberty and equality. We have to make America live up to it. (MLK and Obama echoed this idea)
    • We should interpret the Constitution in a pluralist way, not a single lens. Look at the original meaning, but also how a decision will affect society today, and our descendants. (Or else as a pair of pants with an elastic waist. You want it to have some structure, but also some give. It shouldn’t be a pair of skinny jeans that splits open when you gain a pound.)
  • We have to work to save democracy through reform. It won’t save itself.

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This episode was released on June 25, 2024.

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