Ratified in the summer of 1788, the United States Constitution is an oldie but a goodie (it is, in fact, the oldest of any active national constitution in the world). It ensured a system of checks and balances, protected households from occupation by dirty soldiers, and even insisted that our judiciary be on good behavior. To boot, why would Nicholas Cage need to steal it if it wasn’t such an important document? And, thus, why would Kevin Bleyer, humble writer of “legalize pot” jokes for The Daily Show, need to rewrite a document that’s protected by The Cage?
There’s one main reason. And I’m not generally one to throw around ad hominems, but there’s something we should know about James Madison & Co. Sure, Jefferson had slaves. And yes, John Adams wrote of women that he wouldn’t trade the tyranny of King George III for “the despotism of the petticoat.” But our basis for reserve is more empirical than this: the framers were drunks. Writes Bleyer, “They began each morning with a ‘small beer’ for breakfast—water and milk were considered unsafe—and they kept the party rolling during the day with hard cider and rum.” Madison himself drank a pint of whiskey every day. John Hancock kept a gallon of rum punch by his bedside. On September 14, 1787, fifty-five of those guys went into City Tavern in Philadelphia and drank “sixty bottles of claret, fifty-four bottles of Madeira, fifty bottles of ‘old stock,’ vats of porter, cider, and beer, and what’s been described as ‘some’ bowls of rum punch.”
Come the end of “four month’s toil,” the seven pages they wound up with weren’t half bad. But, notes Bleyer, “it is what you get when you drink beer for breakfast.”
Now, how could drunks write such grandiloquent things as “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” or, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”? Answer: they didn’t. The former comes from the Declaration of Independence, the latter from Karl Marx. But a 1987 study found that half of Americans thought Marx’s line came from the Constitution, and a 2009 Tea Party rally indicated that Speaker John Boehner thought Jefferson’s maxim was found in the Preamble. And for all the tri-tipped hat-wearing patriots out there looking to protect their Constitution from the tarnish of modernity, Bleyer nods to another convenient zinger from Thomas Jefferson: in a letter to Madison, he wrote, “The earth belongs always to the living generation…. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.” That is, according to Jefferson, 1800 called—it wants its Constitution back. And its stupid hats.
A proposed rewrite of the Constitution, Me The People is actually a pretty dense commentary on the document’s history (it’s how I got the cool facts cited above). I guess not surprisingly, it’s a bit like reading a Jon Stewart monologue, if the top story of the evening was that “there’s a Constitution,” and if the teleprompter allowed 300 pages worth of copy. In a similar fashion to a Stewart bit, Bleyer’s “rewrite” is really just a handful of quips/policy suggestions along the lines of, “come on people, let’s not be stupid.” (From his rewrite of Article VI: “Do you belong to an extremist version of your religion? If so, do you swear to whatever god you believe in that you’ll Chill Out for a while? You will? Cool.”)
But Bleyer’s project isn’t all armchair lulz—he does his fieldwork, including a search for a real-life John Hancock and a lunch date with Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia. The chapter on the Judiciary, in particular, is notable for pointing out how the branch originally given the least amount of thought has effectively become the most powerful. That is, a Justice can wait to retire until their ideological pal takes the White House, or they could never retire and just drift into senility while holding one of nine chairs given the task of protecting the document that could only otherwise be safeguarded by the star of Bangkok Dangerous.
His treatment of the Amendments is a bit lighter, but then again, George Mason did suggest that the first ten—you know, the Bill of Rights—“might be prepared in a few hours.” Can you name the 7th Amendment? Me neither, and I just read the book yesterday, so I suppose it’s convenient that Bleyer opted to simply remove it.
One of the best anecdotes is nestled into the passage on the 19th Amendment, wherein Harry T. Burn (real person), a member of the Tennessee State Assembly, effectively puts women’s suffrage into law after this nudge from his mother: “‘I have been watching how you stood,’ she wrote, ‘but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy.’”
Speaking of good boys, the only other order of business was to touch up the 21st Amendment, replacing “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed,” with a little nugget that could’ve been helpful the first time around: “Drink responsibly.” Cheers, Kevin Bleyer, you done good. And to the reader, may I recommend that you chase this actually-sort-of-legitimate history lesson with some claret (whatever the hell that is), or Madeira, or “some” rum punch. You may call it boozin’. The framers called it “necessary.” Let’s split the odds, and say it’s just your moment of Zen.