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The Constitution Says That? Noted Constitutional Scholar Speaks in Essex


Akhil Reed Amar Photo courtesy of the Essex Library

Akhil Reed Amar (Photo courtesy of the Essex Library)


Sam Tanenhaus Photo courtesy of the Essex Library

Sam Tanenhaus (Photo courtesy of the Essex Library)

Riddle: It’s more than 200 years old but it is new every day. It has been debated by university scholars and 6th graders. It’s something people think they know but are constantly surprised by.

What is it? The United States Constitution.

Is the number of Supreme Court justices fixed by the Constitution? What is the unwritten constitution and why do we have it? Why does the United States use electoral votes, not the popular vote to choose the president? Can we change the Constitution? Even write a new one entirely? What does “original intent” mean? Strict construction? Living constitution?

The upcoming three-part series at the Essex Library is the opportunity to provide answers, dispel myths, and illuminate the foundational document of the United States of America. The three sessions, on Thursdays, May 26 and June 2 and 9, will focus on the United States Constitution past, present and future. The programs, at Essex Town Hall, are free but registration is required.

The series features noted constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar and author and historian Sam Tanenhaus.

Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is one of the foremost experts on the Constitution in the United States. He is a frequent media analyst on constitutional issues, whose résumé features not only expert commentator appearances but also guest stints on programs like the Colbert Report. Amar was also a legal consultant to the popular television series The West Wing. In addition, he has a weekly podcast on the Constitution.

Amar’s most recent book, The Words That Made Us, presents a guide to the Constitution from 1760 to 1840. The Washington Post called it “the rarest of things—a constitutional romance,” praising Amar’s knowledge of and affection for the document’s text.

Amar’s earlier books include The Bill of Rights, America’s Constitution, and America’s Unwritten Constitution.

From 2004 to 2013, Tanenhaus was the editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. He is now working on a biography of William F. Buckley. His previous books include a biography of Whittaker Chambers and The Death of Conservatism.

Tanenhaus, who will moderate the first session on the Constitution today, hopes the discussion will generate a framework for questions to pose to Amar on the two following programs.

Tanenhaus described it as “a warm-up for when Akhil [Amar] arrives with all his knowledge, and his thoughts about what lies ahead.”

The idea for the series, Tanenhaus said, was to present programs both relevant and contemporary—but ones that would emphasize information not controversy.

Tanenhaus said that the recent leak of a draft opinion in Roe v. Wade—which, if finalized in that form, would contradict 50 years of precedent recognizing a woman’s right to an abortion—has indeed excited controversy. Nonetheless, the controversy aside, the draft decision can be examined within the framework for the proposed discussions

“I think our approach holds; we’re part seminar and part town hall. The leaked draft gives an opportunity for all of us to think through the controversy and debate in Constitutional terms,” he noted. “I don’t want a shouting match but a free and open conversation.

He added that learning about the Constitution illuminates the entire story of America’s past.

Amar noted he has for some time believed that the right to abortion in Roe v. Wade would not survive.

“I always thought the question was not whether Roe would be gone but whether it would die by guillotine or by 1,000 cuts,” he said.

Amar pointed out the Constitution was a very personal document for him. He was born here when his parents, both from India, were studying medicine in this country.

“My life is better through nothing I earned. The day I was born, the Constitution made me a citizen; it gave me a birthday present. I can repay my luck by studying it,” he said. “I have many cousins who were not so lucky.”

Amar’s family came from Lahore, now a city in Pakistan, but part of India before the partition in 1948.

The written Constitution, Amar has noted, cannot work without the assistance of the unwritten Constitution “to fill in its gaps and stabilize it.” The unwritten Constitution, to be sure, is written, but just not into the document itself. It is made up, among other things, of Supreme Court opinions and congressional statutes and what Amar calls “iconic presidential proclamations.”

Still, he notes the unwritten and written Constitution are together the necessary tools for constitutional interpretation.

Amar believes Constitutional law is not an exercise for a few academics but rather a subject for everybody.

“People are always asking me questions. It is something that people care about,” he said.

And when he is asked a question, in addition to his own expertise, Amar always has a reference at hand: He carries a pocket copy of the United States Constitution with him.

The Constitution: A Three-Part Conversation sponsored by the Essex Library runs on Thursdays, May 26 and June 2 and 9 at 7 p.m. at Essex Town Hall, 29 West Avenue. The program is free and but registration is required. Contact the Essex Library at 860-767-1560 or email

Rita Christopher is the Senior Correspondent for Zip06. Email Rita at

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