Just 4,500-odd words, in one hand-scribed document, established the law that guides the United States of America. And though 27 amendments have been added to the original U. S. Constitution since it was written in 1787, those original words remain the essential governors of the world’s exemplary democracy.
The 232-year-old Constitution continually inspires debate over its meanings, clauses, and directives. Author, scholar, and pro-democracy activist Christopher Phillips believes in taking that conversation to “We the People,” and will do so at his 7th annual “A Conversation with the Constitution,” Tuesday 5-7 p.m. at Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA).
The Socratic-style conversation, with an introduction by Phillips followed by roundtable discussions among audience members – all of whom are invited to participate – is free and open to the public.
“We do not have gatekeepers, anybody can come,” Phillips said, interviewed via phone while working in the Yucatan Peninsula in advance of his San Antonio visit.
“All we ask is that they have an open mind and not just say their next zinger, but listen to what others have to say as well,” he said.
Each conversation has focused on a particular aspect of the Constitution, with this year’s talk concentrating on Article 2, which covers the executive branch of government, outlining the scope of presidential powers.
The current president “recently said that Article 2 gives him the absolute power to pardon himself, and also gives him the authority to do whatever he wants,” Phillips said.
While news media “jumped down his throat,” Phillips said, “like I wrote in my book Constitution Café eight years ago, every president since John Adams has tried to vastly expand the powers given him.”
Phillips cited Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, which “tried to basically usurp the Constitution,” and Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. “At first he tried to go by the Constitutional route,” but when the Senate refused to approve it, Jefferson “did it himself with executive authority.”
Following the publication of his 2011 book Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution, cited above, Phillips visited Gemini Ink’s Breakthrough Thinkers series. That public talk inspired Paul Martin, a financial advisor and retired Navy Reserve commander, to invite Phillips back to San Antonio on Constitution Day in 2013, for a Socratic-style public seminar. The format invites members of the public to engage in roundtable discussions, with a deliberate mix of demographics.
“The whole idea is to bring high school students, middle school students, college professors, community citizens, police officers, firemen, lawyers, to all come together and sit in roundtable discussion as equals,” Phillips said.
“It’s a beautiful thing to behold when they forget their hierarchies,” following in the Socratic tradition, he said. “We all have our stores of knowledge and wisdom. Everything I do is centered around the egalitarian ethos.”
“What’s fun about it is it’s a starting point for conversation,” said Martin, whom Phillips described as “a force for good” who has willed the annual conversations through philanthropic support.
“Whether you’re liberal or conservative or moderate or whatever, everybody loves the Constitution,” Martin said. “We may disagree on what it means, but you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who says ‘I hate the constitution!’”
Both said past conversations have remained civil and hope this year’s is the same, despite the politically charged atmosphere and discussions of impeachment, which Article 2 also covers.
“In an era of putdowns and insults, the whole idea here is to get away from argument and debate mode, from red-faced proselytizing, and switch over to inquiry and exploration mode,” Phillips said. That way, “there’s far more chance of discovering what I call ‘uncommon common ground,’ when we really want to hear each other out, and really try to support our views with compelling reasoning.”
The event is a fundraiser for the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, but donations are not required. Prior to the Tuesday conversation, Phillips will visit The Twig Book Shop Monday to present on his new book, A Child at Heart: Unlocking Your Creativity, Curiosity, and Reason at Every Age and Stage of Life. The gathering, also free and open to the public, will be a “Socrates Café” in keeping with Phillips’s mode, and is one installment of a monthly gathering at the store.