Constitution Café

What is Constitution Café?

   Constitution Café is a space dedicated to the Jeffersonian idea of democratic freedom. Thomas Jefferson derided those who looked at constitutions “like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched.” He believed that such people “ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.”  To him, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

    Jefferson’s visionary antidote for societal stasis in American democracy, as he told the historian Sam Kercheval, was to take periodically “as a tally, every provision of our constitution, and see if it hangs directly on the will of the people.” Those provisions that turn out not to reflect the people’s will, he believed, should be entirely redone. “Let us then go on perfecting [the Constitution],” he urged, by supplanting “those powers which time and trial show are still wanting.”

Constitution Café springs from this idea: What if Jefferson’s radical proposal was put to the test in some way today? To be sure, he had in mind that this constitutional makeover would be undertaken every 20 years, and over 200 years have passed since he first proposed it. But better late than never.

Constitution Café is a space in which actual and aspiring Americans grapple with how they would sculpt the United States Constitution if they could start from scratch. The constitutional articles that participants construct often address perceived flaws, loopholes and omissions in the Constitution. At times this leads to significant revisions by Constitution Café participants of existing articles or the creation of altogether new ones. The articles that are not meant to be the last word, just a starting point for deeper debate. A paramount objective with the Constitution Café project is to spur greater civic engagement, especially among young people, who all too often are left out altogether, and to instill much keener and deeper appreciate for the amazing existing document crafted by our Framers.  

In the course of these exchanges, Constitution Café-goers at times question whether those elected officials who’ve sworn to uphold the existing Constitution are obeying or betraying its strictures. Even more often, they arrive at insights about whether our current Constitution, and the institutions it props up (and that in turn prop it up), are impediments to, or facilitators of, our higher democratic hopes and dreams. This in turn can prompt thoughtful exchanges on whether our Constitution -- as Barack Obama, former professor of constitutional law, maintains – has “proved a sufficient defense against tyranny,” or whether we need “to heed Jefferson’s advice to engage in a revolution every two or three generations.”

In making their case for articles to a new Constitution, those taking part reason, persuade, argue, and bend over backwards to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to introduce and convince others to support his or her big constitutional ideas (usually a two-thirds majority approves the final language for any given article crafted by the group). For as Thomas Jefferson had it, one “cannot have his way in all things” when engaged in such democratic deliberations, but must “acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at other times.” Indeed, “(w)ithout this mutual disposition,” Jefferson asserted shortly after he became president -- at a time when deep political rifts already were developing among Americans -- “we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.”

Come join us at Constitution Café, and be part of “a society” of the sort Jefferson envisioned.

The Constitution Café initiative works under the auspices of our non-profit group Democracy Café™ to come to a greater understanding of the nature and future of democracy, and to influence its nature and future.