Historian and journalist Jill Lepore joined University students and faculty Thursday for a lecture entitled “Making Amends: Revising the U.S. Constitution,” in which she explored the complexities of passing constitutional amendments, the history of constitutional interpretation and the state of American democracy.
The lecture was a part of the Lemley Family Leadership Lecture Series, which seeks to invite “exceptional leaders who are preeminent in their field to campus to engage and inspire the University community,” according to its website. Lepore was introduced by Provost Richard Locke P’18, who also moderated the question-and-answer session that concluded the event.
Lepore thanked the crowd for “coming out to think about the U.S. Constitution,” and pulled up a PowerPoint presentation that depicted her “own frustration with the brittleness of our political discourse” around the Constitution.
Lepore kicked off her presentation by comparing the Constitution to an oven.
“If you have an oven that has a self-cleaning button, you press the button and it gets to 9,000 degrees and it might smell bad and you might be afraid your house is going to burn down, but it’s an automatic way to clean itself,” she said. “The Constitution is the same. It was designed as a machine, and the framers designed it with a self-cleaning button for the machine to work.”
Lepore explained that the framers’ intended “self-cleaning button” in the Constitution is the amendment process, but that amending the Constitution is not as politically feasible as it may seem.
According to Lepore, the ability to amend the Constitution comes from the framers’ hopes that the country’s original governing doctrine will prevail despite the inevitability of American life changing over time.
The framers “didn’t want people’s only option to be constant insurrection against the government whenever they wanted to change things,” Lepore said. “They wanted change to be possible, but to also make (the Constitution) a little hard to mess with. It’s the classic Goldilocks problem.”
Lepore cited the two-party system as a principal factor inhibiting the passage of constitutional amendments, stating that “the emergence of the party system makes things a lot harder than (the framers) intended it to be.”
Briefly referencing the supermajority requirement for passing amendments in Congress — an amendment must have the support of two-thirds of both chambers — Lepore said that “people are not working on amendments because there is no future of amendments. … State constitutions are really easy to revise by just asking people for a majority vote, but you cannot do that federally.”
Lepore then discussed the role the Supreme Court plays in constitutional change and implementation.
“The only way to change the Constitution became going to the Supreme Court and asking them to read it differently,” she said. “Jurisprudence originalists” — such as Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch — “said we can only read (a handful of) documents in order to interpret it, which means that the way the Constitution can be read only got narrower. I think that’s really a dangerous situation.”
Switching slides of her presentation to show a photo of Robert Bork, the 20th-century American judge and legal scholar, Lepore moved on to the fundamentals of originalist ideology and what it means for constitutional interpretation and ideas.
“In the 1970s, conservatives began advocating for a means of constitutional interpretation known as originalism,” she said. “Originalism presents itself as a mode of historical thinking when it is not. There is nothing about it that has anything in common with how historians investigate historical questions.”
Lepore then used abortion jurisprudence as an example of originalism in practice.
“The point for originalists is like, if you want to talk about abortion, it has to be in the Constitution, or James Madison’s notes from the (Constitutional) Convention, or the Federalist Papers,” she said. “But you have an obligation to consult other sources.”
“Political theorists, people in power, framers, that’s great,” she said. “But what about everybody else?”
Lepore also argued that American people have almost religious reverence of the Constitution.
“A lot of people fall into the cult of the Constitution, but nobody cares about state constitutions,” she said.
“A lot of people propagated the idea that the Constitution came from … biblical readings and that the interpretation should be the same,” Lepore said. “It’s a weird thing, and it contributes to the U.S. having one of the lowest amendment rates in the world.”
Lepore concluded her presentation with the proclamation that the Constitution is “effectively unamendable.”
In the question-and-answer session moderated by Locke, Lepore was asked her thoughts on constitutional legitimacy and how passing constitutional amendments could be made an easier process.
“On one side we see conservatives who believe we should be holding constitutional conventions and (on the other side) progressives who tend to be opposed to this,” Lepore said. “It’s one of those difficult moments where possibly the only solution is bipartisanship, which feels like almost a dangerous word to say in an audience like this.”
Another question asked Lepore her opinions on the roles of celebrities and influencers in political discourse, pointing to politically engaged public figure Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“People just need to get together and argue about things that don’t matter to get more comfortable with disagreeing and compromising and forming a coalition to change. I don’t necessarily think there’s any role for Dwayne Johnson there,” she responded. “I think the role of Dwayne Johnson is to just sit down and join a knitting group.”
“But anyone who is entering public office needs to take responsibility for public discourse,” she added.
William Loughridge ’26 commended Lepore’s response, calling it “engaging” and “succinct.”
“I didn’t really know what exactly she was going to talk about beforehand, but… she made me want to go out and fix things,” he said. “I am so jealous that she teaches at Harvard and not at Brown.”
Gabby Smith ’23.5 echoed Loughridge’s sentiment, saying that “Lepore was a really great speaker.”
“I really liked how she brought in historical examples and juxtaposed (primary sources) to really show why we can’t take the Constitution at face value as originalists do,” Smith said. “With the use of metaphors and real political examples, I think she made her points in a very swift and engaging way.”
Sofia Barnett is a University News editor overseeing the faculty and higher education beat. She is a junior from Texas studying history and English nonfiction and enjoys freelancing in her free time.