Last Wednesday, Sept. 23, the Rosenfield Program held a rousing talk by legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar as part of its Constitution Day programming. Amar is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University.
He is the author of numerous books and articles on constitutional law, which have been cited by Supreme Court justices in over 30 cases, and he regularly testifies in front of Congress. His talk on Wednesday focused on his most recent book, “Law of the Land,” which explores constitutional law through a geographic lens. The talk was moderated by Professor Sarah Purcell, director of the Rosenfield Program, who played a pivotal role in bringing Amar to campus.
“All colleges and universities are federally mandated to have programming on the Constitution [in the week following] September 17,” Purcell said. “Instead of seeing that as a heavy-handed regulation, it’s nice to see it as an opportunity to open up these kinds of issues.”
The Rosenfield Program and University of Iowa College of Law coordinated Amar’s visit, with the special assistance of University of Iowa Law professor and Grinnell alumnus Angela Onwuachi-Willig.
“[Onwuachi-Willig] met Amar when she was on sabbatical at Yale,” Purcell said. “When he expressed an interest in coming [to Grinnell] we both jumped on it and decided to make it happen. It was a nice alumni collaboration with the law school.”
Amar’s talk centered on the argument that Sept. 17, 1787, the day the American Constitution went public, represents the beginning of the modern era.
“Across the entire planet, there is no self-governance anywhere else pre-1787, and thus it had always been throughout history,” Amar said.
He went on to explain that the American Constitution was revolutionary because it was the first time a constitution had been put to a popular vote – ancient constitutions and even the Declaration of Independence had not done so. Even the very short length of the Constitution speaks to its democratic values.
“It’s this short so that 228 years ago, an ordinary farmer could read it from start to finish and discuss it with his neighbor,” Amar said. “That had never happened before.”
In lauding the revolutionary democracy of the American Constitution, Amar directly refuted opinions held by such scholars as historian Howard Zinn, who criticize the imperialism and oppressiveness of American history and ideology. Rather, he said, the popular vote on the constitution was remarkable in that eight of the thirteen states actually reduced or eliminated the property qualifications for voters. Those who opposed the Constitution were given a voice in the form of the Bill of Rights, whereas with previous legal texts, including the Declaration of Independence, dissenters were not given sympathy. Thus, Amar concluded, the Constitution is far more democratic than it is given credit for.
Still, Amar made sure to address the possible fallbacks of the American Constitution, especially in regards to the inequality it shows to women and slaves.
“It’s not a step forward, but it’s not a step back,” Amar said.
The remainder of his talk focused heavily on the issue of slavery, upon which, he argues, the entire Electoral College system is founded. This turned more specifically to the content of “Law of the Land,” in which he demonstrated that the abolition of slavery and Abraham Lincoln’s model of leadership were distinctly Midwestern. Midwesterners who were dependent on the Mississippi River and its access to southern ports to sell their products realized that the institution of slavery would inevitably cripple the nation.
Amar’s work is also of special interest to Grinnell College students, as one of the case studies in his books focuses on students’ rights in the state of Iowa. In fact, Amar enthusiastically recalled to the audience how the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District sparked his passion for the constitution as a sophomore in high school, when a satirical article he wrote was censored by his school’s administration.
“Tinker v. Des Moines is a beautiful case because it’s not just a first amendment case, it’s about the Midwest,” Amar said. The case involved a group of high school students in the school district who wore armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, and were subsequently censored by the administration, just as Amar had been when he exercised his right to freedom of speech as a young student.
“It’s very interesting because he also has some personal reflection, and it’s kind of a hybrid intense constitutional analysis and personal history,” said Purcell. “He likes to take very serious, in-depth constitutional analysis and make it understandable for the average educated reader.”
The question and answer portion of the talk paid special attention to the Constitution’s relation to contemporary issues, especially those that have arisen during the recent Republican debates. Discussion focused especially on Fourteenth Amendment issues, as some candidates have suggested that birthright citizenship should not apply to the children of illegal immigrants.
“All you need to know is some basic facts about American history, of which Donald Trump is ignorant,” Amar said. Amar explained that the Fourteenth Amendment was written in relation to liberated slaves, many of whom had been brought to the country illegally. The American people must stick to the constitutional principle that those who are born here are American citizens – an issue of personal significance to Amar.
“On the day that I am born, it gives me the gift of birthright citizenship,” Amar said, referencing his own birth to international parents on student visas in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Amar is extremely articulate and has a great ability to relate facts to students,” said audience member Liam Stowe ’18. “It’s nice to hear from someone in the law discipline since we don’t have a Law department here.”