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A.J. Jacobs on "The Year of Living Constitutionally"

A.J. Jacobs on his "Year of Living Constitutionally"
A.J. Jacobs on his "Year of Living Constitutionally" 06:41

For more than a year now, author A.J. Jacobs pulled on woolen leggings more often than you put on socks. Why? "A couple of years ago, I realized I had never read the American Constitution," he said. "But every day I'd open the news and there's another story about how this 230-year-old document is affecting our lives. And I said, I need to know more about our founding document. And the way I like to learn is, I like to go all-in."

For Jacobs, all-in means total immersion. For his bestselling book, "The Know-It-All," Jacobs spent 18 months reading the entire Encyclopædia Britannica. For "The Year of Living Biblically," he tried to follow all the rules in the Old and New Testaments. And now, his latest immersion: "The Year of Living Constitutionally."

"I do look deeply absurd," he said, dressed for the late 18th century. "But I am also deeply serious about this project. Part of my goal is to get inside the minds of these Founding Fathers as much as I can."

Humorist A.J. Jacobs gets his Colonial-era attire right (except from the ankles down).  Reed Young

Accordingly, Jacobs joined the New Jersey Third Regiment of Revolutionary War Reenactors. He showed Dickerson his musket: "This is the real deal from the 1700s," he said. "I got it online, which I assume is not how they did it back then."

The reenactors, Jacobs noted, "are very committed. Of course, we were not using lead balls; we were using blanks."

Regardless, he actually "died." He said, "I did die for my country, but I died in the shade."

To explore his Second Amendment rights, Jacobs also carried his antique firearm around New York City: "I was at a coffee shop in line with my musket, and a guy in front of me said, 'You go ahead. I'm not messin' with you.'"

To better understand the U.S. Constitution, A.J. Jacobs, author of "The Year of Living Constitutionally," immersed himself in the era of the Founding Fathers.  CBS News

While visiting the 1765 Morris-Jumel Mansion in Manhattan (which Gen. George Washington briefly made his military headquarters), Jacobs was asked what scared the creators of the Constitution. "They had just fought a war to get rid of the monarch," he said. "That's one of the most brilliant parts of the Constitution, is how they built in these mechanisms to stop one person or one branch from taking over, this balance of power. I never really appreciated the balance of power. It has helped keep us from having a tyrant. So far!"

Jacobs' research also took him to Washington, D.C., where he dove into the First Amendment right to petition the government. Jacobs brought along his own petition, a long scroll with 423 signatures, to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, to reconsider Ben Franklin's idea of having more than one president. Wyden remarked, "You are injecting logic and common sense, which often is lacking in public discourse."

A.J. Jacobs presents his petition to Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.  CBS News

So, how was the petition received? "I think he considered it for about five seconds, and that was the end of the consideration!" Jacobs laughed. "I will say he totally bought my underlying thesis that the president has too much power."

While doing his research, Jacobs used a quill pen, which meant living the rest of his day with stained fingertips. "I love writing by hand," he said. "There is something wonderful about taking out a quill pen, dipping it in ink, and just writing those sentences. I love the sound of the scratch, scratch, scratch."

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A.J.'s wife of 24 years, Julie Jacobs … not so much. "We've lived through a lot together," she said. "So, this is nothing! This is nothing."

Asked if she is the World's Most Patient Wife, Julie laughed, "I think so! Feel free to call me St. Julie whenever you like!"

A.J. not only wrote with a quill pen, he scratched his words onto parchment, which is not paper; it's stretched and dried animal skin, like sheepskin. To learn how it's made Jacobs got a lesson from brothers Jesse and Stephen Meyer, who run Pergamena, one of the few places parchment is made in North America.

A.J. Jacobs at Pergamena, one of the few places in North America where parchment is made.  CBS News

Asked to describe the smell, Jesse Meyer replied, "Somewhere between rotting flesh and really strong cheese." 

That same process was used to create the Constitution, which now rests under glass, displayed at the National Archives in Washington, protected by unbreakable glass.

"People come here and they look at it and they're rejuvenated," said historian Jessie Kratz. "And maybe they will go vote, not just in a presidential election, but maybe in a local election."

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Jacobs said, "I don't wanna say 'Just read the Constitution.' That's not really the point. Read the Constitution and talk about it with people, especially with people who disagree with you. That, to me, is what democracy is about."


All this running around might seem like a gimmick, but Jacobs says the immersive approach helped focus him on the key lessons of the system we all still live under today. "They thought about rights, but they also thought about responsibilities," he said. "It was so ingrained in them that they had a responsibility to their community, to their country. But I feel we've lost some of that. It's all about putting others before yourself sometimes."

That lesson isn't just a pleasing notion; it is vital to the Constitution's survival.

Asked if his project made him more optimistic or pessimistic, Jacobs replied, "George Washington sat in a wooden chair at the Constitutional Convention. And it had a carving on the back of the sun, but not the full sun, just half of the sun, the top half. So, you couldn't tell: Is it setting, or is it rising? At the end of the Convention, against all odds, they have this Constitution. Ben Franklin says, 'Now I know the sun is rising on America.'

"And my question was: Is the sun still rising on America? It's up to us. 'Cause if we do nothing, then the sun will set."

"The Year of Living Constitutionally" by A.J. Jacobs

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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: George Pozderec. 

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