A More Perfect Union     29 September, 2006, 10:41 am
I'm lettering the Constitution of the United States, a project that will take several years to complete. I started carrying a copy the Constitution on my travels sometime in 2003. I had been stopped five times in a nine-month period, twice by civilians in public areas and three times by the highway patrol with explanations ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous, but that's another story. My copy of the Constitution became a kind of civic security blanket; I referred to it often as our government took some unprecedented constitutional positions. The idea to letter the Constitution germinated in June 2005 when I used it to demonstrate calligraphy at the Mountain Heritage Arts and Crafts Festival near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I was suddenly smitten with the document and reminded of things I had forgotten and things I didn't know, like who lettered the original Constitution?


My high school civics teacher laid the foundation for my interest, repeatedly admonishing us to "mind our Constitution!" Years ago I got a B.A. degree in American Studies from Miami University and recently read America's Constitution: A Biography, by Akhil Reed Amar ( Random House, 2005). All of which was excellent preparation for the project. The first question was which Constitution to letter – the original Constitution of September 17, 1787 or the Constitution of today? I decided to letter our current Constitution because it's the one I'm most interested in and because it shows how we've evolved. Beginning with the Preamble, I plan to letter the entire Constitution along with the amendments, in separate parts, representing the separation of powers. I may also letter the Declaration of Independence as part of this series. I have completed "The Preamble" and reproduced it as my newest Literary Calligraphy® print.


A close reading of the Preamble reveals the foundations of our democracy. "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." It states clearly and simply the goals of our democracy and stands before us as a measure of our success. To what extent does our government represent we, the people, all the citizens of the United States, meaning everyone, no exceptions? Does our government work to establish justice or seek to circumvent established conventions? Has our government insured domestic tranquility and provided for the common defense? Does our government promote the general welfare or does it promote special interests? Has our government secured the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity? Clearly we are not satisfying all of these goals at all times. Democracy is achieved by the people coming together, repeatedly, for common good – to promote the general welfare and establish liberty and justice for all. The early Americans came together out of diverse backgrounds to form a Union, more perfect as it were than being separate. Indeed, we, the people, are at our best when we come together.


I placed the phrase "we the people," using a hefty Gothic alphabet, at the center of the piece and surrounded it with the words to the Preamble, lettered in a Roman alphabet with blue watercolors on a background of red, white, and blue. I illuminated the words "liberty," "justice," and "tranquility" in three semi-circles around the main text, using black and brown watercolors. In the fourth semi-circle, I drew symbols of American freedom and justice – the Liberty Bell, scales of justice, stars and strips, and the Statue of Liberty. I lettered "the Blessings of Liberty" in an Italic alphabet in shimmering shades of blue and repeated phrases like "establish justice" and "promote the general welfare" for emphasis. I hoped to illustrate the drama of the times in which the Preamble was written and indeed exists today.


Jacob Shallus, a clerk from the Pennsylvania Assembly lettered the original Constitution. He cut his quill pens from large feathers and used an ink made from iron, gum arabic, and oak galls and a colorant such as logwood, a tropical American tree. He wrote on parchment probably imported from England. I use Windsor-Newton watercolors from England, Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper from France, and Hunt-Speedball nibs from Statesville, North Carolina. I'm currently working on Article I, which establishes the Congress. I've laid it out in 102 lines of small bookhand letters that overlay a drawing of the U.S. Capitol and have completed 38 lines so far. I feel honored to be lettering one of our most important American documents.




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