For Presidents and Citizens Alike: Get to Know Your Constitution


“The 2020 election should be a referendum on the Constitution of the United States,” says Corey Brettschneider, visiting professor at Fordham Law. The question then becomes how well do the American people—and their presidential candidates—understand the Constitution? 

On November 14, Fordham Law hosted a book talk featuring Corey Brettschneider, who is also professor of political science at Brown University, and Professor John D. Feerick ’61. The topic of discussion was Brettschneider’s new book, The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents, which offers its readers a detailed history of how the Constitution has been interpreted and practically implemented throughout U.S. history.

“What the book did for me is focus me on our values,” said Feerick. Brettschneider elaborated on this, saying that the book’s underlying idea is that constitutional law draws from multiple sources. To adhere strictly to the words as they were written back in the 18th century would be to violate the intentions of the Founders, he argued.

The strict originalism of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and others has focused too much on just the words and thus “lost the ideas behind the words,” said Brettschneider. “If you don’t see the themes behind the document, I think that’s an impoverished way of interpreting it.”

The book explores many of the country’s foundational ideas. Brettschneider starts each chapter with a principle—a short, punchy statement that summarizes a key concept that presidents must understand, followed by a piece of practical, pointed advice. Chapter 1, for instance, which is titled “Article II and the Limited Presidency,” begins with the following: “The president is not a king or dictator. See yourself as a public servant whose powers are limited by the Constitution.”

While Brettschneider’s book is ostensibly a guide for future presidents, it serves as a practical guide to the Constitution for every U.S. citizen. In a starred review Kirkus calls the book “a clear-eyed, accessible, and informative primer: vital reading for all Americans.” Alan Ryan, the former Warden of New College, Oxford and a current lecturer at Princeton University, named the book as one of two of the best of 2018 in New Statesman.

“The Constitution is independent of any one branch,” Brettschneider said at the Thursday event, “and any one branch can get it wrong.” Ultimately the power is with the people who vote the president into office.


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