“The Yoda of Constitutional Law ” on PBS

CAC Board Member Prof. Akhil Reed Amar helped kick off the new four-part series “Constitution USA” on PBS Tuesday night. Described by host Peter Sagal as “the Yoda of constitutional law,” Amar is featured in “A More Perfect Union,” the episode of the series focusing on federalism. The full episode  may be viewed on PBS’s website.

Professor Amar’s scholarship has been foundational to CAC, and continues to animate our work to fulfill the progressive promise of our Constitution’s text and history.

Congratulations to Professor Amar on a successful premiere, from the Constitutional Jedis here at CAC.


Watch A More Perfect Union on PBS. See more from Constitution USA with Peter Sagal.

SAGAL: So what is your attitude about the original document?

AMAR:  My view of the Founding is the following: it makes everything possible. It’s actually the most democratic deed in the history of planet earth. It’s that impressive. The world will never be the same.  It’s the hinge of history. I divide history between the millennia that happened before 1787, and then the 200 years since.

It’s like the Big Bang. The momentum of this revolutionary moment, bringing a people together to govern themselves, will ripple out and give us the world that we all live in today.

SAGAL: OK, so the Constitution is a turning point in history. But what were we turning away from? What came before? And why did it need to change?

AMAR: Before the Constitution comes along, each state is basically almost its own nation, and the 13 states are connected together by a loose treaty, a league, an alliance kind of like NATO or the EU. …

When the Constitution comes along and proposes an indivisible union and like why would you go for that? The states had been colonies for decades and some cases centuries before the American Revolution, they were separate, one from the other. There are huge differences – a thousand miles – huge differences of culture between Georgia and Massachusetts.

SAGAL: Really? Were they that different? Because you think of them speaking a common language–

AMAR: A thousand miles apart. Very different religious denominations. It would be as if today – honestly the only counterpart would be if someone actually proposed genuine world government; with an army of the world and a president of the world and a legislature of the world. And there’s only one thing that could make you go for that today. And that’s if the Martians were coming.

SAGAL: I was about to say, the classic alien invasion.

AMAR: And you might say well…we don’t love the Chinese but they are homosapiens and so ok. We’re in. So that was the argument 200 years ago.

SAGAL: Martians?

AMAR: Martians are the Brits. And the French.

AMAR: Here’s what George Washington and Alexander Hamilton say in effect: we won the American Revolution by this much – we almost lost it. It was a triple bank shot to win at Yorktown. If we don’t get our act together, we’re going to lose the next war. But if we can create one indivisible nation, we will control the continent. We will be free and no one will be able to push us around.


Further Reading:

PBS deserves kudos for putting together an upbeat and accessible series on material that’s too often treated as arcane.

For those viewers who may prefer  their constitutional theory straight, without the road trip elements, we recommend Laying Claim to the Constitution as an introduction to the new textualist approach to constitutional law. 

Tuesday’s  episode goes on to recall some powerful moments in the history of the debate over  federal power. (See, for example, the reunion of one of the “Little Rock 9,” who integrated Little Rock schools as a sixteen-year-old, and the National Guardsman who protected her.) For more resources on the constitutional arguments at work, see Redefining Federalism.