When Twin Cities Public Television, tpt National Productions and Insignia Films wanted to produce a documentary series for PBS examining what the Constitution means in the 21st Century, they didn’t take the conventional route. Instead of rounding up a number of experts who would talk on a studio set in front of book cases, they asked the host of NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me to get on a red, white and blue Harley Davidson and travel across the country.
“They turned to me,” says Sagal, “to take a road trip to talk with people who were deeply involved in Constitutional issues to see how the Constitution exists, not as a historical document, but how it is lived today.” Sagal visited with people in dozens of cities and small towns across the country, exploring present day constitutional debates such as same-sex marriage, separation of church and state, free speech in the digital age and many more.
“And while we do have experts such as Professor Richard Beeman who is a central part of our documentary,” says Sagal, “instead of talking to him in his office with books in the background, we take him to a bar and give him a beer. That’s why this is the new era of PBS documentation.”
“It wasn’t any old bar,” says Richard Beeman, Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, “it was City Tavern, where the founding fathers met after all of their session to get the real business done.” Sagal explained that they also met in Constitution Hall in the same chairs as the members of the Constitutional Convention.
When Beeman pointed out that after the founding fathers met for a few hours in the morning, they would move to the tavern to “work out the real issues,” the pair decided to do the same. “If you tune in,” says Sagal, “you’ll see Rick and me sitting there with pewter mugs of ale talking about issues of our forefathers.”
Beeman, a constitutional scholar and author of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, is one of several experts featured on the series. It is divided into four parts, A More Perfect Union, It’s a Free Country, Created Equal and Built to Last?
Constitution USA With Peter Sagal airs on the Nine Network’s Nine PBS on Tuesdays, May 7, 14, 21 and 28 at 7:00 p.m. and Thursdays 9, 16, 23 and 30 at 2:00 a.m. The episodes can also be viewed on the PBS website beginning the day after the initial broadcast.
Peter Sagal and Richard Beeman were Don Marsh’s guests on St. Louis on the Air to discuss the PBS series and the constitutional issues raised in it.