Yale Law Professor Akhil Reed Amar: The Constitution’s Big Bang

By Maren Hendricks October 3, 2023

“Every day I think about Abraham Lincoln!” Akhil Reed Amar, Yale University Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science, delivered remarks focused on the Constitution and Lincoln’s legacy as a heroic problem-solving lawyer at BYU Law’s Wednesday Forum.

“The leading originalist of his generation,” according to Justin Collings, BYU Academic Vice President and Amar’s former student at Yale Law School, Professor Amar takes a “wide-angle view” of the US Constitution, reconsidering many longstanding narratives about its genesis and meaning. Amar views the Constitution as the most democratic event in history, with its ratification in 1787 marking the “beginning of the modern world.” “This is the big bang,” he insists, bifurcating world history into “BC” (“Before the Constitution”) and “AD” (“After the Document”). Previously, only Britain and Switzerland were self-governing—the rest of the world was governed by tyrants or royals; now, Amar notes, “half the world is self-governing.” The US Constitution, while imperfect, proved a solid foundation for the new union and it has been a lodestar for the world.

The Constitution’s shortcomings, most notably its provision for slavery, have required its successive amendments. “Making amends,” in Amar’s view has improved the text over time. The US has also compiled what Amar calls “the unwritten Constitution” of unenumerated rights gleaned from American consensus and custom and ultimately reflected in legislation and court decisions. “Reading between the lines of the Constitution is essential because the Constitution didn’t come with an interpretive guide,” Amar observes.

Amar, in what he calls “modern-day Jeremiah”-mode, voices his dismay that America isn’t living up to its potential and isn’t fulfilling its duty as a democratic leader in the world. He cites the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol building as particularly troubling. “I’m more concerned about America now than I was 10 years ago,” he admits. Getting back on track, Amar says, will require our leaders to emulate Lincoln’s commitment to solving difficult problems and achieving compromise.

“Spend time with Lincoln—you’ll like him” Amar urges. He also advises students to (1) diversify their news feed, and (2) “befriend people who disagree with you, talk to them, and force yourself to consider things that don’t comport with what you currently think.” Amar observes that law schools are doing a better job of encouraging this essential congeniality and open mindedness, imploring BYU Law students: “You’re our biggest hope.”