Learning the Constitution Is Essential for Americans

Scholars call the document 'America's civic religion.'

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At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., you can view the original parchment Constitution in the handwriting of the Framers. Doug Swanson, visitor services manager, says he has seen people "burst into tears" when they stand before it. The Archives website (www.archives.gov) offers the full text as well as an "Inside the Vaults" video featuring papers that helped to shape the founding document, like Edmund Randolph's Virginia Plan and George Washington's annotated draft of the Constitution. Since the document's language can be tricky, a book such as Beeman's Penguin Guide, which analyzes every article and amendment, and gives the historical context and modern applications of each, can help your understanding.

For more in-depth research, consider the many books written by or about the Founding Fathers and influential Supreme Court justices. Examples include Ralph Ketcham's James Madison: A Biography and Jim Newton's Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made, which describes the chief justice's decisions on landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954). And the Federalist Papers, a compilation of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, describe the reasoning behind each constitutional article. These works can be read online through the Library of Congress website (http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fedpapers.html).

"The Constitution is like the owner's manual for the government," says Eisner. "It's the simplest, shortest, fastest way to look at America in terms of where we've been and where we aspire to go." Getting reacquainted with the nation's most vital document could turn out to be an essential exercise for every citizen.

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