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The US Constitution and the rights that it enshrines come up a lot if you listen to politicians, activists, protesters, or read the news in any capacity. The document is a remarkable political experiment that has guided the US since its founding, one that has also been updated over the years as new interpretations or scenarios arise that its authors never foresaw.
Last year, The Washington Post launched a new podcast from reporter Lillian Cunningham called Constitutional, which explores the founding of the Constitution and its storied history. Cunningham also is the writer behind Presidential, a podcast that examined each of the 44 US presidents in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
A podcast about the history of the Constitution could be a boring subject for listeners, but Cunningham’s project is anything but: it’s an engaging and fascinating look into the history behind the document. It’s a different view of the people who challenged the law and forced massive changes in how it was interpreted and the people who pushed for changes on everything from allowing women the right to vote to prohibiting the sale of alcohol. The result is a listen that’s engrossing and informative, and it puts a more human spin on the document that governs our lives in the US.
Cunningham says that Constitutional came out of Presidential. “I thought Presidential would be an isolated, standalone project” she explains. “I didn’t really have a background in audio or podcasting, and I just thought Presidential would be this really great resource especially during an election year for people to understand the history of each American president.” But she notes that over the course of that first podcast, she fell in love with the format. “I fell in love with this idea of telling American history stories with an eye toward helping people today understand how the world around them reflects and is shaped by all of these figures and stories of the past.”
When that podcast was over, she received a number of messages from listeners asking what was next, and she came up with a list of ideas for a follow-up. “An exploration of the Constitution was one that kept coming up as a suggestion from listeners,” Cunningham says. She liked the idea of exploring another branch of government and recognized that people would be interested in learning more about the Constitution and various amendments in today’s political climate.
What makes Constitutional such a compelling listen is Cunningham’s focus on the people behind the document. “What really ended up drawing me in were the people and all of these very human stories,” she says. The third episode of the series “Ancestry,” looks at the story of Chief Standing Bear and how a case against the US established that Native Americans were considered human beings under the Constitution. In another, “Fair Punishment,” she looks at the history of Parchman Farm and the racial undertones that helped define what constitutes fair punishment for a crime. In “Prohibition,” she tells the story of the 18th and 21st Amendments through the eyes of a smuggler working in the US Capitol. “I was a bit worried that it would feel a bit dry or academic or full of legal jargon,” she says, “so I made a real effort to ask myself what are the actual stories here?”
She explains that she learned about the power of the force of personality, the courage and the wills of people behind each of the rights that the Constitution grants.
While it spun off of Presidential, Constitutional doesn’t play out in the same format, where she uses one episode to cover the story of one part of the Constitution, or one amendment. “I decided not to do that because I ended up thinking that it was a little too constrained,” Cunningham says. “In some cases, it made sense to tell the story of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments together as one powerful episode about race and Reconstruction, rather than separate them into three.”
Cunningham says that she plans to start work on another series soon, but she hasn’t said what she’ll focus on next. She says that she realized during the Constitutional podcast that she had essentially set herself up to cover Congress, but she doesn’t quite know what her next project will be. “Ultimately, I want to tell stories that are the most interesting, meaningful, and engaging ones, and I don’t want to force myself to do something just to complete a set.”