Philip Blumel: A constitution for the living, an unconventional new book chronicles America’s constitutional conventions as they might have been. Hi, I’m Philip Blumel, welcome to No Uncertain Terms the official podcast of the term limits movement, for the week of February 21st, 2022.
Stacey Selleck: You’re at sanctuary from partisan politics.
Philip Blumel: In the new book, a constitution for the living, Skidmore College Political Science Professor Beau Breslin tells the story of the 2022 constitutional convention, where congressional term limits were finally proposed, approved and sent down to the states for ratification. This tale follows his edge-of-the-seat recounting of America’s other great constitutional conventions, those of 1825, 1863, 1903 and 1953. Hold on a second what? For those keeping score. United States has in fact had only one constitutional convention. At that gathering in 1787, delegates from the several States proposed a replacement for the increasingly unworkable Articles of Confederation. The document, the convention produced was a product of its time, influenced by the Enlightenment liberal ideas of the movers and shakers of that age. The success of that convention and the Constitution it produced has led to imitators across the globe and across time, although we have seen about 150 constitutional conventions of one kind or another at the state level, a national convention as in 1787, was never repeated the United States. But what if it were, after all, Thomas Jefferson, a contemporary of the 1787 convention, argued that much of the legitimacy of the new Constitution came from the fact that the generation that authored it would have to live under it.
Philip Blumel: “Not only was the US Constitution a product of its time,” he suggested, “but it should be, as one generation should not control another. Each generation should write its own constitution.” Well, sorry, Mr. Jefferson. I don’t buy that. Neither does Beau Breslin, as it turns out. We’ll get to that. But what if Jefferson’s idea is the starting point of Breslin’s brainteaser, what if story of speculative history and speculative politics, hence the book subtitle, Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law. Breslin lays out the genuine historical background in each of the eras surrounding his imaginary conventions. The conventions are populated by those generation’s leaders, real historical figures that he enlists to tackle the issues they championed and that characterized their times. Notably, Breslin’s 2022 convention delegate who introduced and shepherded the congressional term limits proposal is Philip Blumel, president of US Term Limits. That’s right, me. I spoke to Beau Breslin on the phone last week. Hey, Beau, welcome to the program, No Uncertain Terms.
Beau Breslin: Thanks Philip, thanks for having me.
Philip Blumel: I read your book over the holidays. And I loved it. It was fascinating, bit of… Well, I don’t know, and I was thinking about what to call the book before this podcast, I think I settled on speculative history. Is that fair?
Beau Breslin: That is totally fair. Yeah.
Philip Blumel: ‘Cause what you’re doing, I guess, is really taking your knowledge of history, which is extensive on the subject and then making some… Positing some possibilities, right?
Beau Breslin: Correct.
Philip Blumel: So where did this book come from?
Beau Breslin: I spent a lot of time thinking about the American founding. I’m a big fan of the founding fathers. And it’s fairly well known Phillip, that there was this interesting debate between Madison and Jefferson. And at one point, I was talking to a student at Skidmore. And we just kinda stumbled on the fact that what if Jefferson had won the debate between Madison and he about generational constitutions? And the basic argument of the book is that imagine we live in a Jeffersonian world in which every generation or so writes a new constitution. What would those constitutions have looked like in American history? And so what we did, what I did was simply imagine constitution throughout American history and write the stories of the convention.
Philip Blumel: Interesting. Have you done any other work outside of this book on conventions and constitutional amendments?
Beau Breslin: I’ve written a little bit. I’m a constitutional theorist. And what that basically means Philip is, I don’t really pay much attention to what… Scholarly, I don’t pay much attention to what the Supreme Court says about constitutions. I’m much more interested in Constitutions as documents that kind of order our political lives. And so I’ve written about the American Constitution throughout my career, but I’ve never done anything quite like the speculative history. So this is a first for me.
Philip Blumel: I did not get the sense from reading this that you were advocating for the Jeffersonian frequent conventions or any particular issue or even actually, constitutional conventions in general. Am I right or did I miss something?
Beau Breslin: No, no, you’re absolutely right. I like to think of myself as a Madisonian. I’m a big James Madison guy. And Madison and his exchange with Jefferson said, “No, an enduring constitution, one that now is 235 years old is… We need that for stability and credibility.” So I am not a fan out of the periodic constitutions, though it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what those would have looked like. But I would not be the first in line to advocate for periodic constitutional conventions.
Philip Blumel: In fact, I should note this so there’s no confusion that US term limits, the sponsor of this podcast, we definitely are trying to amend the Constitution using Article Five, in calling for a amendment writing convention limited, explicitly limited by the resolution, limited to the subject of congressional term limits. And we actually adamantly and officially oppose the idea of a wide-open invention. So I guess we share that sort of Madisonian view. What’s interesting is that the US Constitution has… We’ve only had one constitutional convention. And this constitution has lasted so long, has been copied all over the globe. And of course, it’s lasted all this time. That’s an argument and I think has earned the respect that Madison suggested was necessary for it to have to be a successful constitution. But you mentioned in the book a fact that I didn’t know and I found fascinating is that the average life of a constitution globally is about 15 years or so.
Beau Breslin: Correct.
Philip Blumel: So in sense we have sort of, on a global basis, experienced the Jeffersonian idea a little bit too, am I reading too much into that? In a sense?
Beau Breslin: No, I don’t think you’re reading too much into that. I never miss an opportunity to tell folks, to remind folks that the American Federal Constitution, our US Constitution, our 1787 document changed the world.
Philip Blumel: It did.
Beau Breslin: So at the time, there were no national constitutions. Yes, there were state constitutions at the time. But the 1787 document is the longest enduring, most stable constitution in human history. And now, all but three countries in the world, New Zealand, Israel and the UK have written constitutions. So our constitution changed the world. The difference between our Constitution and others is, as you point out, most other constitutions don’t last very long, 15 years, some lasts a little bit longer, the average is 15 years. But our constitution is kind of a testament to Madisonian thinking. And I too, I’m not, as I said, I am not a fan of periodic constitutional conventions. And when you are gonna get together for an article five convention, it has to be targeted. So term limits would be one of the most obvious. And for me, one of the best kind of low-hanging fruit in terms of changing the constitutional documents.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, I noticed that term limits showed up even in the earliest conventions in your book.
Beau Breslin: Oh, yeah.
Philip Blumel: And of course, it showed up in the original real convention of 1787. And we’ll get to that in a second.
Beau Breslin: Yeah.
Philip Blumel: You wrote about, I almost don’t wanna call it imaginary because there was so much factual information I got out of each of these constructed conventions. I’m almost thinking of them as real now after reading your book, but you created conventions of 1825, 1863, 1903 and then 2022, right?
Beau Breslin: 1953…
Philip Blumel: Which was your…
Beau Breslin: 1953. Yeah.
Philip Blumel: ’53. I missed ’53. Sorry.
Beau Breslin: Yeah.
Philip Blumel: And which was your favorite in constructing, which was most fun? [chuckle]
Beau Breslin: Well, so yeah, that’s a great question. Nobody’s asked me that question before. And I have to tell you, my favorite was the 2022 chapter, but not for the reasons that most people would assume. So most people would assume that the 2022 imaginary convention was my favorite because it’s contemporary, because it kind of speaks to the issues of the times. It’s the one that you and I are living through.
Philip Blumel: You’re a historian. I didn’t think that, right?
Beau Breslin: Right. So that wasn’t the reason why. The reason why I liked the 2022 convention was because the process that I had in crafting the narrative and imagining the 2022 Convention was so different, and I’ll explain it simply this way. In 1825, 1853, 1903, 1953, I could use real historical figures to tell the stories of what those conventions would have looked like. But in 2022, I have to use real people. I can’t be using the Booker T Washington’s or the Daniel Webster’s like I used before, those who are long dead. I had to use real people. So it was a totally different process to call up, folks like you and I’ll use Mike Bruni as an example. Michael Bruni is the executive director of the Sierra Club. I had never met him. But there’s no doubt that if there was a convention at the moment, there would be some conversation about environmental factors. And…
Philip Blumel: Sure.
Beau Breslin: I had to call him up and he had to be a partner with me like you were a partner with me for term limits. So it was just super fun to connect with folks like you who really know what they’re talking about and are interested in these targeted ideas.
Philip Blumel: Mark your calendars, friends for February 27th. My favorite day of the year, it’s the day we celebrate throwing out the career political bums and making them get real jobs for the first time in their lives. Of course, I’m talking about national term limits Day, February 27th. It’s the day in 1951 when term limits for the president were officially added to the Constitution. Now it’s a day each year for all Americans to rally behind term limits for Congress, rally behind the term limits convention. We talk to our legislators, we waive signs, we write letters to the editor. We post on Facebook and Twitter, we sign new people up to volunteer for term limits, on term limits day.
Philip Blumel: If term limits are good enough for the President, for governors or state legislators for mayors and school board members, city council members, what makes Congress so special that they can serve for life. We need to end this insanity. We need to get back to the citizen-government that our Founders intended. And there’s never been a better day to get involved and make your voice heard. February 27th, is national term limits day. Go to termlimits.com/termlimitsday for more info.
Philip Blumel: Let’s go back to term limits now. It came up in the 1825 convention.
Beau Breslin: Yeah.
Philip Blumel: And the context was restraining the power of the judiciary.
Beau Breslin: Yeah.
Philip Blumel: It came up in… Well, it came up in several… Just almost every single one in some context, even if something didn’t pass, it at least came up as part of the debate. In the 1953, you did have the presidential term limits enacted.
Beau Breslin: Correct.
Philip Blumel: Or proposed, I should say. This is a convention.
Beau Breslin: Yeah.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So what is it about term limits that you think is so natural part of this process, that it would keep recurring throughout all American history?
Beau Breslin: Well, I think there’s a… So I think a couple of things, one of which is a profound… How do I put it? Skepticism about people in power. And Americans are skeptical of folks in power, and they’re even more skeptical about folks in power who want to extend that beyond what most people believe is a reasonable amount of time. And so throughout history, and you think, for example, we’ll go through them quickly, the 1825 judiciary term limit question. A fair number of people in 1825 would have been somewhat upset with the way in which the Marshall Court had kinda taken the Supreme Court to a different plane. And so moved it, gained so much power for the Federal Government, that most people would have been pretty aggravated, especially sort of Jacksonian populus would have been pretty aggravated by the power of the federal judiciary in 1825. And so it’s logical, Philip, at that point for folks to say, if they’re sitting down and writing a convention, to think about term limiting federal court judges.
Beau Breslin: A lot of states had term limits for state court judges, why not have them at the federal level? And then of course, in 1953, as I sit there and imagine what conversations would have happened in the 1953 constitutional convention. So you have FDR. FDR dies 84 days and 82 days into his fourth term. Now the question becomes, “Okay. Do we pass a constitutional amendment like we have, or do we… If there’s a convention right on the rise, then do we wait for the convention?” And I argue that they would have waited for the convention ’cause there was no chance of having another FDR in the interim between 1945 and 1953. But they absolutely would have wanted to limit the number of terms a President can have at the 1953 convention. It is now logical in light of all of the history, in light of the fact that I argue, that most people will argue that Congress is not as effective as it needs to be. It is logical, if there was a convention too, in the next decade, that term limits for congressional representatives, both house and senate, would be one of the first things that they talk about at a constitutional convention.
Philip Blumel: And of course, that passes at the 2022 convention. [chuckle]
Beau Breslin: Yeah. Yeah, so…
Philip Blumel: That’s a credit.
Beau Breslin: Yeah, you only have three institutions in 1825, 1953 and 2022, all three of them were dealing in some way with the three major Federal Institutions of the term limits.
Philip Blumel: Which convention then was maybe the most difficult one to create?
Beau Breslin: Yeah, so that too is a great question. And I should tell your listeners that these dates are not random. So just so everybody knows, Jefferson argued that every 19 years, that’s when a generation turns over. I was not gonna write a book where there was a constitutional convention every 19 years, that was both indulgent and boring. So what I did was I just simply took the life expectancy of the average American at the time of the convention and pushed it forward to see when the next convention would be. So for example, in 1787, the average life expectancy of a White male was 38 years, was pushing at 1825. And then in 38 years of the average life expectancy of Americans then, in 1825 too, which quickly, right snack dab in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. It was that 1863 chapter that was the most difficult to write. And the reason is because you’re kind of in a situation where there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of, basically dominoes, puzzle pieces. So one person said to me after reading the book, “Would Lincoln have even won his second term, if there was an 1863 constitution, a new constitution?” And I’m not sure if the answer is yes. So it’s those sorts of interesting, kind of speculative, counterfactual moments that made 1863 really complicated.
Philip Blumel: One thing I have noticed that you did not spend much time on, and this might be partly because again, you didn’t want it to be 1000 pages and starting to get dull because this is not a dull book as it is, is you didn’t spend much time on ratification and so you get the sort of impression reading the book that, to make the book work the way you want it, I think you sort of assume that these things were ratified.
Beau Breslin: That’s right. [chuckle]
Philip Blumel: At least I did as a reader.
Beau Breslin: That’s right.
Philip Blumel: But in any case you didn’t spend much time on it, I just thought you might wanna mention that or why not?
Beau Breslin: Yeah, so you are… I have to give you chops, man, you are an astute reader.
Beau Breslin: The fact of the matter is… And the reason why I’m so impressed is, it’s very likely that at least one of these five imaginary constitutions would not have been ratified, right?
Philip Blumel: Right.
Beau Breslin: But the reality was, it would have been a pretty dull book, if I had gone through the entire process of imagining the conventions and then said, “Oops, April Fools, this 1903 constitution was never ratified by the people, and we’re kinda back to riffing off the 1863 constitution or whatever.” And so I just kinda took the liberty of assuming that each constitution would have been ratified. [laughter] But good noticing that ’cause it’s very possible one would not have guessed.
Philip Blumel: Yeah, oh definitely. But I think that was the right call. And it’s funny as you’re reading this book, because it’s a thought-provoking book. You made these judgments and speculations and used your imagination in the context of history, and it encourages the reader to do the same thing. So I find myself as I was reading it thinking like, “Oh, I could see why he left that out, or I would like to do this, or why I would have done that.” And so it encourages us to think about it in those terms too. That’s the impression I got from it. And that’s one thing that for me made it a very enjoyable, enjoyable book.
Philip Blumel: Well, I’ll tell you what, I appreciate you sharing some more detail about this, and I definitely appreciate being included in the book as a delegate at a convention that you know I would love to do in reality more than just about anything. So I can live it vicariously through an imaginary version of myself until it actually happens, I guess. So I thank you for mentioning our organization and myself personally, and I enjoyed the book. And is there anything else you’d like to tell our listeners before you go?
Beau Breslin: Yeah. The fact of the matter is, I’d like to publicly express my deep gratitude, not only to you. You and I did not know each other from a hole in the wall when I called you up and said, “Would you be an imaginary delegate?” and you were gracious and generous enough to say yes, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I wanted to go to the lead figure in each debate. I do think term limits is the most likely thing to change at any moment in terms of amendments and/or a convention, but I so appreciated the fact that you were eager to step up and kinda play the game in a way that I needed, and so both your organization and you yourself, I can’t be more grateful.
Philip Blumel: Well, thank you very much for joining us today. Thanks, bud.
Beau Breslin: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Phillip.
Philip Blumel: Thanks for joining us for another episode of No Uncertain Terms. The term limits convention bills are moving through the state legislatures. This could be a breakthrough year for the term limits movement. To check on the status of the term limits convention resolution in your state, go to termlimits.com/takeaction. There you will see if it has been introduced and where it stands in the committee process on its way to the floor vote. If there’s action to take, you’ll see a Take Action button by your state. Click it. This will give you the opportunity to send a message to the most relevant legislators urging them to support the legislation. They have to know you are watching. That’s termlimits.com/takeaction.
Philip Blumel: If your state has already passed the term limits convention resolution or the bill’s not been introduced in your state, you can still help. Please consider making a contribution to US Term Limits. It is our aim to hit the reset button on the US Congress and you can help. Go to termlimits.com/donate. Termlimits.com/donate. Thanks. We’ll be back next week.
Stacey Selleck: Find us on most social media at US Term Limits. Like us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, and now TikTok.