Two hundred and twenty-nine years ago on Sept. 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for a final time to sign the important document they created. This month we celebrate Constitution Day to remember this significant day in our nation’s history.
Here at TFAS, we have our very own in-house constitutional expert to share the importance of this founding document. Dr. Donald Devine is the Grewcock Senior Scholar at TFAS where his Constitutional Leadership Seminars provide a free educational opportunity for college students to gain further knowledge of the Constitution and the values of America’s founders.
Devine served as President Ronald Reagan’s civil service director during the president’s first term in office. During that time, The Washington Post labeled him Reagan’s “terrible swift sword of the civil service” for cutting bureaucrats and reducing billions in spending. Today, Devine travels the country teaching Constitutional Leadership Seminars to young people and speaking to groups about the importance of its history.
The goal of Devine’s seminars is to introduce young people to a Constitution that they don’t know. He says that too many college students are taught that the Constitution is what judges say it is and that they spend little time studying the actual text of the document. “My goal is to show them what the real Constitution is,” says Devine. “I make them look at the Constitution itself, and it’s not all about judges. It’s about five major institutions, all of which check each other and none of which is supreme over the other.”
Through the Socratic method of teaching, Dr. Devine is able to get young people excited about and engaged in a conversation on the Constitution and the values of America’s founders. “I ask questions to draw out the answers from students,” says Devine. “I try to make them do most of the work in class.”
The result is a lasting and deeper understanding of our constitutional founding. A student participating in one of Devine’s seminars called it, “one of the clearest and most thorough explanations of the original intent and design of our constitutional government and philosophical underpinnings.”
As we prepared for this year’s Constitution Day celebration, TFAS sat down with Devine to get his take on the national holiday and his biggest takeaways from years of studying and teaching the Constitution.
Why do you think Constitution Day is important?
Who is supposed to know the most about the Constitution? Lawyers. I’ve been giving lectures to Federalist Society members for years and I ask every time: ‘How many have the full copy of the Constitution printed in their constitutional law books,” I’d say less than 10 percent raise their hands. So, 90 percent do not. Anything that gets people to actually look at the Constitution is a big plus as far as I’m concerned.
What is something people can do to celebrate Constitution Day?
Read it. TFAS students get a pocket Constitution on their first day at orientation with a full copy of the Constitution and “fun facts.” TFAS alumni should read that on Constitution Day this year.
Do you have a favorite constitutional amendment?
The thirteenth – against slavery – was a good one, obviously. And the fifteenth along the same lines. Another easy thing to say would be the first amendment. But actually, I teach on the importance of institutions more than amendments to the Constitution. One thing I try to get across in my class is putting up a Bill of Rights is cheap. You want to see the best constitution that’s ever been written about rights? Read the constitution of the Soviet Union. It has great rights for everybody! The fact is they didn’t get any of them.
Who is your favorite founding father?
George Washington. He didn’t say much, but he was highly respected. You also have to give high importance to James Madison. He tried to create one basic structure. At one point, he tried to have all the state laws reviewable by the national government but he lost the vote. He said, ‘How can you do that? You’ve got to have somebody in charge.’ He realized later that having these different institutions – none which is totally dominant over the other – is a good thing, not a bad thing. Madison went in with one idea of what he was going to do and he came out with a totally different product. He realized at the end that it was better because so many people had input in it. John Dickenson was also very good. There were a lot of good people who put that together. It wasn’t just one or two people.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned during your years as an academic studying and teaching on the Constitution?
I guess I was originally taught like everyone else that the Supreme Court has the final word on the Constitution. And I don’t remember exactly when I found out that it wasn’t and wasn’t supposed to be, but that’s probably the most important insight I’ve got.
Who have you looked up to in the constitutional law and freedom movement?
A guy named Frank Meyer, who not many people know about. He was an editor at the National Review magazine in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He was a very high-level communist for a while until finally he found out that communism was all wrong. It took him a long time to go back and figure the importance of western civilization, and the Constitution was kind of the final word about the development of western civilization. What Meyer taught me most is that the Constitution is part of this history of liberty that really makes America different. And kind of a sad thing is that we’re really moving away from that in some serious ways.