Nowhere in the Constitution is the job of the president defined as “growing” the economy, getting re-elected, implementing a party platform, maintaining his approval rating, doing “big things,” impressing foreign dignitaries, or fulfilling the people’s wishes, whatever the intrinsic merits of any of these activities. It is, rather, as the presidential oath states, “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” You can’t do this if you don’t know the Constitution or aren’t willing to submit to it.
It was the duty of the Old Testament kings of Israel to administer justice according to the law that God had given to Moses. Embedded within that law, long before any king actually reigned in Israel, was the following command: “And when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law…. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes.” (Deut. 17:18-20 [ESV]) We are not explicitly told why he had to write out his own copy. Surely a king has better things to do. What are scribes and secretaries for, but to relieve those they serve of such onerous tasks?
Perhaps, however, the king was required to write his own copy of the law for the same reasons that your 5th grade teacher required you to rewrite misspelled words 10 times each (or 100, if you walked to school uphill in three feet of snow both ways). Most obviously, this is a good way to learn how to spell a word. Unless you do it in the most disengaged, mechanical way, writing something out by hand tends to impress it upon your memory. But there is another, more subtle, lesson being taught in such an exercise: that there is an order to which you are subject beyond the impulses and desires of your own heart. The word “judgment” does not have an “e” between the “g” and the “m,” whether you like it or not. You must write it according to the given rules. Now, for elementary school students, such a lesson is learned in many different contexts—there are few domains in which an 11 year-old reigns. For a king, however, occasions when one is reminded that he is yet a servant, rather than a master, are few.
The American president is not a king, but the trappings of the office and the sycophantic staff (and sometimes press) that surrounds him leave him equally in need of lessons in servant leadership. Would it be so remarkable, then, or so foolish, for a presidential candidate to pledge to transcribe a copy of the Constitution before publicly vowing to “preserve, protect, and defend” it? If President Bush could read 186 books during the last three years of his presidency and President Obama play 48 rounds of golf in the first year and three-quarters of his, then the several hours it would take to hand-write the 7500 words of the Constitution between the election and the inauguration could surely be spared.
We propose to each 2012 presidential candidate that he (or she) adopt the “Constitution Pledge,” promising to present a hand-written copy of the Constitution to the Chief Justice as he rises to take the oath of office. How different—how powerful—his vow might be to him with the Constitution’s key words and phrases flashing through his mind. How different—how powerful—his vow might be to those who witness it, with an old-fashioned, long-hand copy of the Constitution before their eyes. Let the first speech of every presidential term be the silent word spoken to leader and citizen that the president submits to our most fundamental law.
Jacob Shallus, an assistant clerk of the Pennsylvania State Assembly, was paid $30 to transcribe the final draft of the Constitution, about $400 today—or one-thousandth of the cost of a 30-second national television spot. In a presidential cycle where the most valuable commodity may be something money cannot buy – the public trust – who could doubt that a candidate who takes the “Constitution Pledge” will have taken an important step in convincing his fellow citizens that he really means to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Any takers?
Dr. Corbin is an Associate Professor of Politics and Chairman of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Department at The King’s College in New York City. Dr. Parks is Assistant Provost and a Lecturer in Politics at The King’s College in New York City.