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Constitution Cafe: Jefferson's Brew for a True Revolution Hardcover – August 22, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


An engaging and informative narrator, Phillips intersperses the modern-day conversations with Jefferson’s thoughts about the issues under discussion and the founding fathers’ own disagreements as they framed the Constitution. In an era of hyper-partisanship, it’s refreshing to read instances of Americans from all political persuasions holding rational, respectful, and thought-provoking conversations with one another. (Publisher’s Weekly)

The author skillfully interweaves a history of the early days of the Republic and the disputes at that time with a discussion of Jefferson’s involvement with constitutional issues in the state of Virginia as well as for the country as a whole, and he offers useful insight to Jefferson’s thoughts over his long career. A provocative extension of Jefferson’s original plan. (Kirkus Reviews)

The United States needs constitutional change, but how to get it done? Christopher Phillips has the right answer. Get Americans talking to Americans about how we can improve our nation. Phillips has combined the approach of Socrates and the wisdom of Jefferson to show us the way. (Dr. Larry J. Sabato, author of A More Perfect Constitution and Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics)

A truly radical and deeply patriotic book, Constitution Café illustrates the power and promise of democracy, using the extra-ordinary conversations of ordinary citizens to re-animate the founding ideas and documents of this country. America needs this book...now! (Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy)

About the Author

Christopher Phillips is an educator, author, and pro-democracy activist. Visit him on the Web at www.christopherphillips.com.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 17580th edition (August 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393064808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393064803
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,387,114 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read all of Christopher Phillips's books about engaging in contemporary socratic dialogue. His latest, CONSTITUTION CAFE, is a much appreciated and exciting follow-up to this project. Here the focus is the question, "How could we, the American public, 'rewrite' the Constitution?"

The book is a series of discussions from around the United States with diverse groups covering different Articles and Amendments. Two examples are lawyers talking about the patent clause and teenagers talking about the voting age amendment. Each group comes up with new Articles attempting to redress perceived problems with the existing Constitution.

While I like the _ideas_ proposed by the groups, I found any given one slightly unsatisfactory. I think this is the point: it is difficult to write a one-size (and time)-fits-all Constitution. Particularly in the case of the 2nd Amendment, Phillips gives an example of where there is so much schism between the participants they come up with two conflicting versions. I would have liked to have seen more instances of this.

Phillips's historical interludes on the conflicts the Founding Fathers had among (and within) themselves highlights the difficulties and compromises needed back in 1783. I especially liked the dichotomy between Jefferson's democratic ideals vs his actions as the 3rd President. I think this drives the point that the US Constitution is a living document subject to constant rereading and reinterpretation.

If you are looking for concrete action items to solve America's problems, you will be disappointed; likewise, if you seek a scholarly treatise or a polemic.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read the other Socrates Cafe books and have thoroughly enjoyed them - enough to host a number of cafes with friends. The idea behind this book - to reconsider our Constitution and how we might re-draft it today if given the opportunity - seemed great. Unfortunately, the execution of this task was severely lacking. There was very little analysis applied to any of the Constitutional recommendations - making them appear juvenile (whether one actually agreed with the recommendation or not). It might have been more effective to focus on a smaller number of Constitutional issues and dig a little deeper into each of those issues - perhaps with the same Socratic methods used in the earlier books.
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Format: Hardcover
Phillips travels across the U.S. to conduct a series of informal working sessions with a broad swath of citizens to re-examine the Constitution and suggest updates and improvements.

This book brings to life the ideas and mindsets of Jefferson and Madison during founding of the United States. This work raises many ideas which could be implemented to reinvigorate our political systems, by applying the reasoning and current experiences of ordinary citizens. This book is equally a history lesson as well as a call for thoughtful changes to our Constitution. Phillips often quotes Jefferson, who wrote: "...laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times."

Though I often found the proposed rewordings in the Constitution Café Article sections to be impractical or incomplete, indicating the ideas could be further elaborated, this realization melds with the purpose of the book - which is that our systems must be improved. I found the section on judicial power especially informative - it is this branch which does the necessary interpretation and adaptations that enable our Constitution to be applied to current society. Yet this branch of government consists of appointed rather than elected judges who hold court for decades - and hold powers over the other two branches of government that are not specified in the Constitution.

If we cannot adapt our political systems to befit the modern world (the US Constitution was crafted before corporations existed) then our national political vigor is indeed in peril. This book shows how simple, and interesting, it could be to have ordinary citizens continue the work of improving our government by improving its Constitution.
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Format: Hardcover
First: no index at all and almost no documentation. Very shabby workmanship.

Second: many of the discussions would profit from diagrams or tables; there are none.

But mainly his arguments are silly. As I started reading, I guessed this was just another rabid liberal, but after the first chapter I realized he also totally politically naive. His proposals consist of utterly unworkable ideas:

* a committee of about 25,000 to rewrite the Constitution and a legislature of 10,000 (and rising with population) to replace Congress; and he seems to endorse the idea of plebiscites on every issue, which would occupy the population of every state eternally. (The State of Mass passed up toward 1000 laws in 2011; if each had had to be voted on by the electorate as a whole, what work would they have done, and what laws would have been passed?) Has this man ever attended a town meeting?

* he blurs the idea of "common good" with "common goods", though there is a tremendous difference between them in practise. Russia tried Communism for a century and quit.

* wills are out: nobody may bequeath anything to his descendents. What would happen in practice? The elderly with wealth they have striven to save over their lifetimes for their children will simply pass it along before death, either by gifts of cash or in kind, or park it with the gnomes; -- anything rather than let it fall into the hands of unknown youths of unknown ethics. Don't bother to save; no point.

* no patents. Drug companies are expected to invest 20,000 man-years at $300,000/man-yr (= $6 billion) in one active, with no guarantee they will ever recover a fraction of it, let alone make a profit. Don't buy Merck in Phillips's USA.
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