In explaining the process of design to an audience at Harvard, Charles Eames once resorted to parable. In India, he explained, people of the lowest caste would eat off banana leaves. People a bit higher up the social scale would eat off a ceramic dish whose shape was inspired by the banana leaf. Moving even farther up the social scale, these dishes—talis—might be elegantly glazed or made of fine bronze. “I suppose some nut has a gold tali that he’s eaten off of,” Eames speculated, “but I’ve never seen one.” Eventually, though, people lacking in neither means nor knowledge chose to abandon the elaborate tali for the simple, uncomplicated, and functional banana leaf. In many respects, this return to the basic elements of design lies at the heart of this reissue of Bruce and Esther Findlay’s Your Rugged Constitution.
First published in 1950 and last revised in 1969, it offers a thoroughly irresistible introduction to the United States Constitution, one of history’s most durable, practical, and principled experiments in design. The Constitution is so called because it, quite literally, constitutes our body politic. It frames the structure of government, animates its departments with determinate powers, and balances each branch in delicate counterpoise. Its fundamental principle of design is liberty: liberty of government and liberty of the individual.
Your Rugged Constitution takes the form of a user’s manual for every citizen. It offers a line-by-line explanation of each article, section, and clause, ending with the 26th Amendment. Like any good user’s manual, this volume is illustrated. Almost each page features cheerful Eames-era drawings depicting the concepts presented. When Article I, Section 4 requires that “Congress shall assemble at least once in every year,” a sprightly member of Congress dashes across the page, suitcase in hand, to arrive at the Capitol in time. And when the 16th Amendment confers upon Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes,” dutiful citizens queue up to drop dollar bills into a burlap sack held open by the taxman. (A chic French poodle looks particularly displeased in this scene.) But the 8th Amendment steals the show. When “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required,” a dead ringer for Judy Holliday turns up to bail a slick nogoodnik out of lock-up.
Your Rugged Constitution also contains clear and explicit instructions. “As a citizen of the United States living in the House of Freedom,” the authors write,
you enjoy precious rights which the Constitution guards for you. These rights were won for you by brave men of the past who believed in the goodness and intelligence of ordinary people. Perhaps you are so used to these rights that you take them for granted. But it is only in the United States and other countries with truly representative governments that the common people are protected against mistreatment by their fellow citizens and by their governments. . . . These rights of yours are the same no matter what your race, religion, political beliefs, or wealth may be. . . . [Y]our most precious rights as a citizen can never be taken away as long as you and other Americans understand and maintain the Constitution.
The clarity of this prose is a tonic for the chronic dyspepsia that plagues much current writing on the Constitution. But this is no soppy bedtime story. There was a time when the book was required reading. In 1958, the American Bar Association recommended it alongside The Federalist for inclusion in each American’s home library. From the 1950s to the 1980s, members of Congress invoked the book on issues ranging from American involvement in the United Nations to a school prayer amendment to the Constitution.
Yet those were also times when civics was a required course in public schools and students memorized the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Today it seems most Americans are introduced to the Constitution not through the text itself but through press coverage of the Supreme Court—the equivalent of reading deconstructionists on Shakespeare while dispensing with the Bard altogether. The republication of Your Rugged Constitution presents an opportunity for current generations to familiarize themselves with our nation’s founding document in a clear and engaging fashion.
True, the book is dated. Yet even when it shows its age, it is as illuminating as a time capsule, shedding light on the past and throwing into sharp relief the rapidity with which change occurs. For example, a passage on the Article 5 amendment process warns the reader: