Children’s book author Cynthia Levinson and her husband Sandy Levinson, a constitutional scholar and a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, have recently published “Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Graphic Novel,” based on their 2017 constitutional law primer for young readers. That first book, “Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today,” deals with weighty issues such as the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voting rights, and political imbalance in the Senate. The Gazette interviewed the husband-and-wife team to talk about the flaws in the Constitution and the need to start a dialogue about constitutional change to make the U.S. “a more perfect union.”
Cynthia and Sandy Levinson
GAZETTE: How did the idea of writing a graphic novel about the Constitution come about?
CYNTHIA: It actually was the person who developed the Discussion Guide for the original text version of our book, put out by Peachtree Publishing Co., who came up with the idea and suggested it to Mark Siegel, who leads First Second Books, a graphic-novel publisher in New York. The idea wasn’t ours, but as soon as it was brought to us, we were way onboard. We were just thrilled with the idea.
SANDY: I believe that Americans in general know appallingly little about the actualities of our political system, and this all begins at the secondary school level. I can testify that most law students and most lawyers have a deficient knowledge of the kinds of things we write about. Much of my eagerness to participate in these kinds of books, which certainly are very different from what I ordinarily write, is the belief that it’s important to educate kids because if you wait until they’re all grown up, it’s kind of hopeless.
GAZETTE: What was the main challenge in writing this book for both of you?
CYNTHIA: The challenges of writing the text version of the book had to do with deciding which topics to focus on. In the book’s second edition and in the graphic-novel version, we have 20 fault lines we write about. But really the biggest challenge was keeping the book updated and current. The news is ongoing and always so related to the Constitution that it was like building the plane while flying it. Transforming the textbook into a graphic novel was actually not so challenging as I had expected, largely because the illustrator Ally Shwed did such a terrific job.
SANDY: For me, the challenge earlier was to accept the fact that I really can’t write for kids and Cynthia can. [Laughs] I couldn’t write for that audience if my life depended on it. In genuine seriousness, it’s very important that Cynthia is a prize-winning children’s author, independent of the fact that she happens to be my wife, and she has demonstrated that she knows how to write for the audience we wanted to reach. The paradox is that I’ve actually used the print version of our book, on which the graphic novel is based, in classes I’m teaching this semester at both the Harvard and Yale Law Schools, and students at both of those places have agreed that it’s very accessible. My own view is that our book is written for children of all ages, including grandparents.
GAZETTE: Before we talk about the flaws in the Constitution, what are the Constitution’s main strengths?
SANDY: We both agree that the main strength is the preamble. It’s a wonderful preamble because it tells you concisely what the point of government is.
CYNTHIA: I would add that the Constitution as a whole was an incredible invention. It wasn’t made up of nothing. The framers were looking back at Parliament, and also possibly looking at Indigenous peoples’ forms of governance as inspiration. They created a new type of government that is flawed and hasn’t stood up well over time, but they managed to keep the colonies as one country. It did unravel later on, but for some time, they managed to put together, under one umbrella, a government, and when the first Congress took place, all of the representatives and senators swore an oath to the Constitution of the entire country.
GAZETTE: What was the influence of the five-nation Iroquois Confederacy in the formation of the new government? Your book mentions that the Iroquois had three bodies similar to an executive, a legislature, and a court system, and that their treaties began, “We the people.”
SANDY: For years and years, the possible influence of the interaction of white settlers with Indian tribes was ignored. In more recent years, there has been an active desire on the part of some scholars to say that white settlers really were influenced by the way the Iroquois Confederacy had organized themselves. I doubt that it was a major influence, but it would not surprise me at all if it registered on some of the people who did have active experience with the Iroquois. It is important to realize that could have been the case. But it’s a matter of debate.
One of the things that we always emphasize is that we do not engage in founder bashing. I agree with Cynthia that the people in 1787 [the year the Constitution was written] were doing the best they could, given what they knew and the political circumstances of 1787. The people we bash are ourselves because we don’t have the same kind of willingness of the framers to think and act audaciously with regard to reforming a political system that has real problems. The framers described the existing political system as “imbecilic,” and instead, we have this reverence towards 1787, which I think the framers would be astonished and even appalled by.