I think of the Constitution’s Preamble as a kind of national mission statement.
Some Americans recently noted a day most of us haven’t even heard of: Constitution Day. This year marks the document’s 230th year – but the commemoration hardly matches the Fourth of July. Nevertheless, a few people paid attention in a most intimate way.
Their inspiration began months ago in New York City, where artist Morgan O’Hara had invited a few friends to the New York Public Library to hand copy the Constitution. Frustrated and distraught by Donald J. Trump’s impending inauguration, O’Hara wanted a way to calm down, contemplate the future of our country and think. And she didn’t want to do it alone.
She put together a bag of pens, several types of paper for writing, staked out a table, and started. Others joined her. Some were invited friends. Others just saw what was happening and joined them. Eventually, O’Hara wrote about it in the New York Times.
Friends of mine in Venice saw the newspaper piece, went to the local librarian and made arrangements for a similar experience in another Los Angeles library. So on a Thursday afternoon a dozen of us – some of us friends, others who just showed up – gathered at the library. Staff provided supplies, several kinds of pens for writing, some felt-tipped with a spectrum of colors, plus a variety of paper choices as well as copies of the Constitution. After an introduction of a few sentences, we started writing, silently.
That’s when a woman walked in rather brusquely, sat down in the seat next to me and whispered, “So what are we doing?”
I said, “Copying the Constitution.”
“Just copying it?” she asked, with a bit of an edge. “No discussion?”
“No discussion,” I affirmed. “Just writing it down.”
Apparently, she had her talking points lined up, whatever they might have been, but joined the silence like the rest of us and wrote.
I started at the beginning because the Preamble to the Constitution is my favorite part:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
It embodies “the core values of our country” as one of the New York participants noted. I think of it as a kind of national mission statement or declaration of purpose.
Others copied the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments that were adopted following the ratification of the Constitution itself. Still others began at some random point. But after about 90 minutes we all seemed to have one experience in common: writer’s cramp. Those fingers just wouldn’t keep holding a pen much longer, and after writing a bit more, we stopped.
Someone asked what struck us most by copying it down. “There’s no mention of God,” my friend who had organized this experience said. She’s right, of course. God is not even mentioned in the U.S. President’s oath of office (located verbatim in Article II, Section 1).
Then a couple of young men who had joined us showed their work, done in a graceful script, in multiples of colors. We all acknowledged the beauty. Then we left.
Later I asked a few of the people I knew how they viewed the experience with some days’ perspective. One remarked on the “concision” of the document – how many details were included in such a brief space. Another thought it was a nice meditation that could have been done at home, but which felt even better in a group. Another said it focused him on the document for the first time in very many years. Someone else pointed to words like “emolument,” which feels archaic, except it is finding usefulness again in connection with the Trump administration. Another wondered if the experience felt particularly “meaningful” because she’s a writer.
As for the librarian, she’s planning to repeat the experiment, this time on the date this year that Constitution Day will be observed, Monday, September 18th. No discussion. Just writing it down. Abbot Kinney Memorial Branch Library, 501 S. Venice Boulevard, Venice; 4-6 p.m. (310) 821-1769.
Copyright Capital & Main