What does the Constitution mean today, 235 years after it was written? This is a question the whole nation has been grappling with but one man—New York Times bestselling author, journalist, and lecturer A.J. Jacobs—took it up on himself to live as closely as possible to the original meaning of the Constitution for a whole year. And he did it in New York City, where he discovered quickly that wearing a tricorne hat and wielding a 1700s musket and bayonet around Manhattan does not go over so well.

In Jacobs’ new book The Year of Living Constitutionally (a followup to The Year of Living Biblically), he explores with great humor, humility, and perceptiveness, what it means to follow the Constitution literally and what consequences this has in actual practice. Jacobs will be our guest at the upcoming Lit Salon on May 21:

Lit Salon: The Year of Living Constitutionally

Can’t make it in person? Book live stream here.

The Year of Living Constitutionally cover

As Jacobs writes in the “preamble” of The Year of Living Constitutionally which is structured like the Constitution with a preamble and series of articles, he “pledged to try to express my constitutional rights using the tools and mindset of when they were written in 1787.” His plan was to be “the original originalist.” He would bear arms, but only with weapons available when the Second Amendment was written. His exercise of First Amendment rights had to be done by writing pamphlets with a quill pen and distributing them on the streets of New York City. He’d even bring a quill-written petition to Capitol Hill to unroll it for a sitting Senator. Would he be granted his petition to become a pirate for the United States? Read the book to find out. For the Constitutional right of assembly, he would assemble in coffeehouses and taverns and not over Zoom. He would do his darnedest to quarter a soldier in his Manhattan apartment (and he did!). He even enlisted for the militia (as a re-enactor, of course). When he voted, he would do it like the Founding Fathers did, by announcing his vote out loud. He would request any punishment for himself not be cruel or unusual. He said “Huzzah!” a lot. And he’s still saying it.

AJ Jacobs at Capitol Hill

In tandem with all these exercises, Jacobs tried to avoid electricity in his own house, he’d cook Colonial-era foods and desserts and imbibe Martha Washington’s rum punch. He tried to recreate the festiveness of elections of yore by baking an “Election Day cake” and bringing it to polling sites. He even convinced people in all fifty states to do the same.

  • AJ Jacobs at Election Day with his cake
  • Election Day cake made by AJ Jacobs
  • AJ Jacobs baking his election day cake

Why would someone do this? “I want, as much as possible, to get inside the minds of the Founding Fathers,” Jacobs says, “And by doing so, I want to figure out how we should live today. What do we need to update? What should we ignore? Is there wisdom from the eighteenth century that is worth reviving? And how should we view this most influential and perplexing of American texts?”

  • AJ Jacobs with Senator Ron Wyden
  • AJ Jacobs unrolling his petition
  • AJ Jacobs at a revolutionary war battle re-eactment
  • AJ Jacobs and family on the battlefield
  • A.J Jacobs dead on the battlefield
  • AJ Jacobs writing a petition
  • AJ Jacobs training to fire a musket
  • AJ Jacobs quarterin ga soldier
  • AJ Jacobs looking for Originalist water
  • AJ Jacobs at the National Archives
  • AJ Jacobs at Capitol Hill
  • AJ Jacobs chopping wood
  • AJ Jacobs at a colonial themed dinner
  • AJ Jacobs with Ro Khanna

The Year of Living Constitutionally successfully alternates between hilarious, witty anecdotes of Jacobs’ attempts to live like the eighteenth-century Founding Fathers, and well-researched analyses of the Constitution. Jacobs does not shy away from sharing his own political beliefs, but as a journalist, is looking for evidence to contradict his own tenets. In a time when the nation has become sharply divided over free speech and other Constitutional rights (my own friend group withstood Covid and the 2016 election, only to have a schism over free speech in 2023), I found The Year of Living Constitutionally a breath of fresh air. As such, I’m so pleased that A.J. Jacobs will be an in-person guest of The Lit Salon and Untapped New York next week at our next literary salon. We’ll be serving Martha Washington’s Rum Punch, Jacobs’ son is going to bake Colonial-era desserts, and we’ll be wearing Revolutionary-era outfits. Jacobs will also gift a goose quill (carved by him) and ink to anyone who attends in person! The live music will be a surprisingly modern Mozart quartet.

Lit Salon: The Year of Living Constitutionally

Can’t make it in person? Book live stream here.

AJ Jacobs petitioning in Manhattan