The People’s Constitution

New Project Makes Documents, Interviews More Accessible

Posted September 14, 2007 at 4:01pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2:30 p.m. appointment didn’t garner much media attention on Sept. 10, a day when reporters and protesters alike swarmed to the House side of the Capitol for the testimony of U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. With a solemn portrait of George Washington behind him and 17 ninth-graders from Rockville, Md.’s Wootton High School in front of him, the Nevada Democrat held forth on the Great Compromise and the separation of powers.

Organizing the event — from arranging the chairs to calling on students for questions — was Lorianne Updike, executive director of the new nonprofit Constitutional Sources Project, also known as ConSource. Today — Constitution Day — she will take the taped session with Reid and two others with Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney, to the Independence Mall in Philadelphia for ConSource’s public launch.

The goal behind ConSource is to create a free online archive of primary source documents, such as personal letters, pamphlets and records of legislative proceedings, that could give clues about the opinions of the Founding Fathers and their personal visions for the American system of government. The hope, Updike said, is that easy access to these documents will offer important historical context about the Constitution to everyone who needs it — “from the sixth-grader to the Supreme Court justice.”

Contacted about her participation with the project, Lynne Cheney said in a prepared statement that “to gather together the documents related to the Constitution and to make them available on the Internet, as [the] Constitutional Sources Project aims to do, is a worthwhile undertaking that I am pleased to help launch.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Majority Leader was supporting the project because of his “special reverence for the Constitution.”

The organization is headquartered out of the K Street offices of law firm Winston & Strawn, where one of ConSource’s top supporters works as a litigation partner. Updike says the site is nonpolitical and that she hopes it will garner a diverse audience, which she sees as crucial to its success.

“We make the materials available,” Updike said. ConSource “is as political as a dictionary. We’ve taken care to make sure it’s not hijacked … neither party owns the Founders.”

The ConSource Web site (consource.org) features endorsements from Breyer and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who addressed the Constitutional Sources Project in Salt Lake City in March 2006. Updike said Associate Justice Antonin Scalia also supported the project.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the reaction from the court,” she said. “The clerks, especially, will be pleased, because they’re the ones that will really use it.”

Craig McKee, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, accompanied the Wootton High School class, which includes many of his former students, to the session with Reid. As a teacher, he said, he sees “a lot of value in accessing the actual words of the Founders” — both in class lecture and in conjunction with research projects he has his students do.

Donna Phillips, the social studies department head at Wootton High School, also accompanied the students to the Capitol.

“We do a lot of work with primary sources,” Phillips said of the social studies curriculum at Wootton. “We Google the ones we know about and we find a few [of the] well-known ones like Federalist 21, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

With ConSource as a resource, she said, “we can have not just the mainstream sources, but the others that maybe didn’t make it into the final versions” of the Constitution. She added that with ConSource, “teachers will be able to find [source materials] more readily.”

Because primary source documents are widely dispersed, Updike said, ConSource offers a universal upload feature whereby professional and amateur historians and scholars with access to these documents can upload them from anywhere. The documents, once they are certified as authentic, will be added to ConSource’s archive.

Updike is a 2005 graduate of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. She worked briefly as an adjunct professor in the university’s communications department.