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August 8, 2014

Help Re-imagine the Republic at the Constitution Café

By Bill Sullivan

Christopher Phillips wants to get rid of the Constitution and start over again. Well, not exactly. But he does want us to think about what we would do if we could start over. The William & Mary alum (Government major, naturally) will be leading the conversation in a “Constitution Café” Monday, August 11 at 5:30 in Colonial Williamsburg’s Visitor Center.

Christopher Phillips

Christopher Phillips

The idea of rewriting the Constitution has fascinated Phillips since he first encountered Thomas Jefferson’s notion that even fundamental rules should be rewritten every 19 years. “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law,” he wrote to James Madison in 1789, mere months after the Constitution was ratified. “The earth belongs always to the living generation.”

Phillips, currently Senior Education Fellow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, is author of Constitution Café: Jefferson’s Brew for a True Revolution, as well as three books focused on the work of Socrates, so he is well versed in philosophical dialogue.

He describes the discussions he leads as thought experiments designed to figure out how we might like to change the Constitution—if we could. But how would we do it?

Phillips answered a few questions about the Constitution Café in advance of his visit.

CW: Why are you holding these discussions?

CP: My answer is threefold:  First, to inspire Americans to read our Constitution. It’s only 4300 words long, yet a national survey conducted by the Center for the Constitution in Montpelier revealed that about two-thirds of Americans have never read our Supreme Law of the Land in its entirety.

Second, to bring together, in this age of polarization, people of many walks of life with quite diverse views to show that it’s perfectly possible for them to engage in civil discourse.

And third, because dialogues like this might spur them to action in the civic sphere in ways that would make our Founders proud.

CW: What are some of the most interesting places you’ve held these conversations?

CP: I’ve had some very motley groups of people all over the country: at the Mall of America Food Court in the Twin Cities; People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., site of some noted protests during the Vietnam War; the Green Dragon tavern in Boston, which was the watering hole where Sam Adams and fellow Sons of Liberty met to plot the Tea Party; and right in front of Colonial Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern, where our founders plotted revolution.

CW: Do people need to come prepared?

CP: No. It’s fine and dandy if they do read the Constitution beforehand. But my fond hope is that as a result of taking part in this, they’ll immerse themselves in our Constitution early and often — and that this will be a springboard for further and deeper thought about the civic role they’d like to play today in making our democratic society more vibrant. I want the conversation to jump start people’s passion.

CW: What do you hope people go away thinking?

CP: First and foremost, they should go away thinking that what they say matters and counts. They should leave this discussion energized and inspired, now that they’ve seen that it’s possible to have thoughtful and reasonable give-and-takes with people who have political views quite different than their own. Maybe even confirm the Jeffersonian faith that later generations can do better than the founders.

“Constitution Café” is a free event held at Colonial Williamsburg Regional Visitor Center at 101 Visitors Center Drive. 

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