The Blizzard of 1996 and How I Became the Constitution Lady



As I overlook the snow falling in Washington this afternoon, I am reminded of January 7, 1996, when a blizzard dumped 20 to 30 inches of snow in my hometown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and forced the closure of schools and businesses for several days.

I was in fourth grade at the time, and my mother, in an attempt to keep her three kids occupied while also preventing learning loss, decided to give me and my two siblings encyclopedia assignments. The assignment was simple enough. She assigned us a letter, and we were to pick a topic in the the print encyclopedia (yes, we still had print encyclopedias in the 1990s) with that letter and prepare a short presentation.

She assigned me the letter “C.” I serendipitously opened the encyclopedia to the entry on the Constitution and prepared my oral report. As luck would have it, when I returned to school, my teacher discussed the three branches of the United States Government. Since I was now a self-proclaimed constitutional scholar (at the tender age of 8), I was able to correctly answer all of the questions he posed to the class. As a stereotypical A-type personality, I decided then and there that I was on to something with this whole Constitution thing, and, perhaps, I should keep studying it and, therefore, answering questions correctly.

From that moment at the age of 8 onward, I developed a deep abiding love and appreciation for the Constitution. I would go on to study student speech issues in middle and high school, and even started a “Constitution club” in high school, where students could gather after school to discuss pressing constitutional issues.

In college, I was awarded a research fellowship to study the development of the “clear and present danger” standard. As part of my research, I traveled around the country and met with a number of leading first amendment scholars. This experience demonstrated to me the importance of discussing the contours of constitutional rights.

In law school, I created Constitutional Conversations, an award-winning, non-partisan, community-based education program in partnership with the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Williamsburg Regional Library system. The program sent law students into the community to educate citizens about their constitutional rights and responsibilities. The program continues at William & Mary Law School today.

Today, I have the privilege of serving as executive director of The Constitutional Sources Project. Through my work over the last 5 years, I have had the opportunity to teach thousands of citizens about the Constitution and our nation’s constitutional history.

Several years ago, a young woman emailed me about the Constitution for a paper she was writing in her middle school class. In that email, she wrote “Dear Constitution Lady…” I think the name fits, and so have adopted it as my unofficial title as I travel the country discussing the Constitution.

I can thank the Blizzard of 1996, my mother, and a print encyclopedia for setting me on this lifelong journey. I believe my work has never been more important than it is now, and look forward to continuing to promote constitutional literacy in the years ahead!


On This Day in 1789, the First U.S. Presidential Election is Held



On this day in 1789, America’s first presidential election under the federal Constitution is held. Voters cast ballots to choose state electors. At the time, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. George Washington was elected and sworn into office on April 30, 1789.

The electoral votes in the 1789 election were as follows –

(1) George Washington of Virginia: 69

(2) John Adams of Massachusetts: 34 (prior to the ratification of the 12th amendment, the candidate who received the most electoral votes became president, while the candidate who won the second most became vice president).

(3) John Jay of New York: 9

(4) Robert Hanson Harrison of Maryland: 6

(5) John Rutledge of South Carolina: 6

(6) Samuel Huntington of Connecticut: 2

(7) John Milton of Georgia: 2

(8) James Armstrong of Pennsylvania: 1

(9) Benjamin Lincoln of Massachusetts: 1

(10) Edward Telfair of Georgia: 1

4 electors failed to cast their ballots, and only 10 out of 13 states participated in the election. North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution and were, therefore, ineligible to participate. New York also did not participate because a deadlock in the state legislature led to a failure to appoint its allotment of 8 electors.

A Modern Tradition for Congress: The Annual Reading of the Constitution on the House Floor

Under Article VI, Clause 3 of the Constitution, members of Congress must swear an oath to support the Constitution –

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution[.]

Title 5, Section 3331 of the United States Code sets out the oath each member of Congress must swear or affirm to before taking office –

“I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

In 2011, for the first time in the history of the House of Representatives, the full text of the Constitution was read aloud. The annual tradition has continued ever since. You can watch this year’s annual reading here:

This is an excellent opportunity to take a moment to read the Constitution and explore its history. I invite you to do both by visiting


Civic Engagement Should be Your New Year’s Resolution



On Monday evening, during a closed-room vote, the House GOP proposed major changes to the independent Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Under the new rules, the OCE would no longer operate as an independent agency.  It would, instead, answer to the House Ethics Committee, putting Congress in charge of policing itself.

The public outcry was swift and effective. According to the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, members of Congress cited constituent concerns as the most important factor in their decision to sideline the proposed changes to OCE.


This moment serves as a reminder of the power of civic engagement. As I’ve said here before – being a citizen does not begin and end on Election Day. It’s a 365-day-a-year job.

Make civic engagement your New Year’s resolution. Here are some ways you can get and stay involved throughout the year –

(1) Vote regularly at the local, state, and national level and help persuade others to vote, as well

(2) Contact elected officials

(3) Volunteer in your local community or for an organization with statewide or national goals

(4) Active membership in a group or association

(5) Giving or fundraising for a cause that’s important to you.

(6) Displaying buttons, signs, and stickers related to an issue important to you, your local community or the nation.

(7) Sign online or written petitions

(8) Write a letter to the editor

(9) Boycott or protest

(10) Discuss issues that matter to you with people in your network.

(11) MAKE SURE YOU STAY INFORMED! Information is the key to meaningful engagement!



The Separation of Church and State: Jefferson Sends His Famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists On This Day in 1802

Jefferson’s letter reads –

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802.

Jefferson’s letter was in response to this letter from the Danbury Baptist Association received in October 1801 –


Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your Election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoy’d in our collective capacity, since your Inauguration, to express our great satisfaction, in your appointment to the chief Magistracy in the United States: And though our mode of expression may be less courtly and pompious than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, Sir to believe, that none are more sincere.

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondred at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretence of goverment & Religion should reproach their fellow men—should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States, is not the national Legislator, & also sensible that the national goverment cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cal’d you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermin’d opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people

And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom throug Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.

Signed in behalf of the Association


EPHM. ROBBINS                          The Committee


Abraham Lincoln Issues the Emancipation Proclamation On This Day in 1863



On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued his emancipation proclamation, reading –

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. Johns, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South-Carolina, North-Carolina, and Virginia, (except the fortyeight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth-City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN

WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

It’s important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation was limited in many ways. It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, and did not apply to to slaves in border states that remained loyal to the Union. It also expressly exempted part of the Confederacy that were already under Union control. Further, the freedom it promised depended upon the Union’s military victory.

It’s argued that –

When reunification was the sole goal of the North, the Confederates could be viewed by foreigners as freedom fighters being held against their will by the Union. But after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern cause was now the defense of slavery. The proclamation was a shrewd maneuver by Lincoln to brand the Confederate States as a slave nation and render foreign aid impossible.

Upon signing the Proclamation, Lincoln said “I never felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”