To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
This year's Law Day theme was "A Legacy of Liberty: Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial." Thinking about the Law Day theme, and attempting to relate it to New York, I found myself recalling a public reading of the Constitution organized by People for the American Way Foundation in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in 2004.
As President, Lincoln was devoted to maintaining the Union and constitutional government, notwithstanding his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. As a candidate for President, he foreshadowed this theme when he delivered a major address to the Young Men's Republican Union in the Great Hall at the Cooper Institute, now Cooper Union, on February 27, 1860. It was a powerful statement of his devotion to the Constitution as a living document, whose meaning should be sought by studying the intentions of its framers.
The thesis of the address was that the Republican Party's position on slavery - that it should not be extended to the territories - was consistent with the views of a majority of the framers of the Constitution. The speech itself is painstakingly detailed, enumerating every opportunity that any of the Constitution's signers had to cast a vote that indicated how he would view the extension of slavery to the territories or any limit on Congress's ability to regulate slavery in the territories.
Lincoln's Cooper Union speech embodied the greatest respect for the Constitution. Consequently, the public reading of the Constitution in the same room, almost 150 years later, was a moving and fitting tribute to Lincoln.
I attended the public reading at the invitation of a friend who was involved, expecting a rather dry, sparsely attended event. My first surprise was to find that the hall was overflowing. The next, continuing surprise was that the audience was deeply, enthusiastically and vocally responsive to the words of the Constitution (although, in some cases, the enthusiasm undoubtedly was helped by the readers). The reading was punctuated by ovations, applause and, in a few cases, boos. No one left before the end.
Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator ever, read the stirring words of the Preamble. Richard Gere brought the house to its feet reading Article I, Section 3, which includes the power of the Senate to try impeachments. James Naughton provided what is surely the most sultry reading ever given to the powers of Congress, Article I, Section 8. Judge Jack Weinstein, who has sat as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York since 1967, was the federal court system incarnate when he read Article III, the Judicial Branch.
The amendments provided many profoundly moving moments. Floyd Abrams, the dean of the First Amendment bar, read the first three amendments. Kate Lardner, whose father was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, read the Fifth through Tenth Amendments, most poignantly including the confrontation clause. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee divided the Reconstruction Amendments, starting with the abolition of slavery and ending with the affirmation that the right to vote shall not be "denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Comedian Bill Irwin read both the 18th and 21st Amendments, imposing and then repealing prohibition. Betty Friedan, who was then 83 years old and had spent the last 40 years fighting for gender equality, got a standing ovation when she read the 19th Amendment, granting women's suffrage.
At the end, one was impressed by the elegance and breadth of the framers' vision (and, in contrast, the turgidity of the latest amendments). One could only wish that every American could have heard this reading and reflected on the strength and balance of the Constitution. I urge you to take some time to revisit the language of the Constitution, either by reading it yourself or by watching the public reading on YouTube.
This is indeed Lincoln's legacy: respect for our governing principles, and faith in their ability to be applied to today's controversies.
A version of this article appeared in the May 1, 2009 issue of New York Law Journal.
Ann B. Lesk