When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney hit the stage Tuesday night at Hofstra University on Long Island for the second of three presidential debates, they’ll be responding to questions submitted by a town hall-style audience, who will determine the content of the conversation. It’s a controlled chaos, but a chaos nonetheless, one that gets to the heart of American democracy.
And yet, suggests Richard Beeman, former chairman of the history department of the University of Pennsylvania, our democracy faces a growing paradox: that, while “there is an abundance of evidence establishing that the vast majority of Americans, whatever their political differences, have an intense love of country … there is an equally large body of evidence suggesting that Americans’ knowledge of their history and of the way in which their institutions have worked over the course of that history is embarrassingly meager.”
Beeman’s statement comes in the introduction to a new series, Penguin’s “Civic Classics”: six small paperbacks that seeks to gather our most essential documents, among them as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and a collection of Supreme Court cases, spanning two centuries.
The idea is to refute our collective ignorance, although the cynic in me feels compelled to observe that, at this point in what David McCullough has called our “clamorous popular culture,” there is something quixotic about attempting this with a series of books.
Despite these limitations, I can’t help but be drawn to “Civic Classics” because I love the material so much. Besides the Declaration and the Constitution, which make up the first volume of the series, there’s Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet “Common Sense” — which remains for me the most significant book ever published in America, the template on which the republic stands — and a selection from “The Federalist Papers,” in which James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton make the case to ratify the Constitution, offering essential arguments about checks and balances and the bill of rights.
What’s fascinating about this is how it reminds us that the United States — as both country and concept — was never inevitable, but had to be fought for, argued over … in the most fundamental sense, framed. That puts the lie to questions of intent, or any claims of originalism, reminding us that the nation, as embodied by its founding documents, has always been in a state of evolution, that the culture changes as we do, that we have no choice to play a part.
“Civic Classics” grows diffuse when it shifts away from these early writings, into collections of “Lincoln Speeches,” “American Political Speeches” and “Supreme Court Decisions.” Indeed, the last two volumes, which run up to the present, may be as notable for what they omit (Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, the Supreme Court’s recent healthcare ruling) as what they include.
But this, too, seems oddly appropriate in a nation that remains involved in an argument over its values, over who it is and who it wants to be. I only hope that’s the substance of the debate Tuesday night … although I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.