New York City man ‘lived’ the Constitution for a year. Here are 7 things he learned

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Bestselling author and journalist A.J. Jacobs has found his niche in life. Rather than exploring an intriguing topic for an hour or two, let’s say — or a day, a week or a month — he goes all in for a year or more, coming out on the other side a slightly changed version of himself. 

He completed his latest adventure in this election year of 2024 — a time when he’s already applying some lessons learned, he said. 

He tried to live “by the Constitution and get in the mindset of our Founding Fathers” for a full year, he told Fox News Digital in an on-camera interview just as his new book about it, “The Year of Living Constitutionally,” was published. (See the video at the top of this article, plus other videos within.) 

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“It was a fascinating year,” he said. “And there were so many takeaways.”

Among them: “I wrote most of my book with a quill pen. It changed the way I thought. So I was writing, and I didn’t get the dings and chimes from the internet. I could actually focus.”

He added, “I think it made me a better thinker — a more subtle thinker.”

He shudders to think, he also said, “that if the Founding Fathers had written the Constitution on an iPhone, they would never have gotten it done. There are too many distractions.”

A married father of three, the New York City-based writer not long ago read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica over an 18-month period “in a quest to learn everything in the world.” The result was his book “The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World,” which spent a couple of months on the New York Times bestseller list.

“If the Founding Fathers had written the Constitution on an iPhone, they would never have gotten it done. There are too many distractions.”

After that, he turned to the Bible — then to getting healthier, building a family tree and learning the intriguing world of puzzles. (He wrote books about all of these.)

The Constitution opened his eyes, though, in ways he didn’t expect, he said. 

Here, in edited excerpts of Fox News Digital’s interview with him, are 7 life hacks he learned — and why they’re especially relevant this year.

Book cover

1. ‘Be more open-minded’

A huge takeaway, he said, was discovering “that the Founders were very good at changing their minds. It was patriotic to look at the evidence and come up with a different opinion. It wasn’t a disgrace. It was a badge of honor.”

Jacobs pointed out that “at the [Constitutional] Convention [in Sept. 1787], Benjamin Franklin said, ‘The older I get, the less certain I am of my own opinions.’”

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The lesson is that “we all think we’re right on everything and we’re not. So let’s be a little more open-minded,” said Jacobs.

Then there was “James Madison,” he added. “The very last act he did on planet Earth was to change his mind. He was on his deathbed. His niece was there, and he made a strange face. And she said, ‘Uncle, what is the matter?’ And James Madison said, ‘Oh, nothing. I just changed my mind.’” 

“We all think we’re right on everything and we’re not.”

And “then he died,” said Jacobs. “So we do not know what he changed his mind about. It could be the wallpaper. It could be the bicameral legislature. We just don’t know. But right up until the end, the Father of the Constitution was open to changing his mind.”

2. Remember ‘We the People’

“A couple of years ago, I saw a study that said 60% of Americans have not read the Constitution from start to finish. And I realized that I was in that 60%,” said Jacobs. 

And that was “embarrassing,” he said, “because the Constitution has this enormous influence on our lives and our country. It’s our founding document. It is in the news every day.”

U.S. Constitution

So “I said I really need to read it — but not just read it. I want to understand it. And the way I like to understand a topic is to dive in, immerse myself, walk the walk, talk the talk. So I said, I am going to try to understand the Constitution by following it and using the tools and mindset of the Founding Fathers. I’m going to walk in their buckled shoes and try to understand: What was the original meaning? And how should we view it today?”

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As part of this endeavor, “I went to visit where the Constitution lives in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was fascinating. It was awesome in the old sense of the word — awe-inspiring — because it was almost like going to a cathedral.

“It was very darkly lit, and it was quiet,” he said. “And it was almost like going to see a relic, a religious relic in a cathedral. And it’s very well protected.”

“The government is by the people and for the people.”

“As they told me, Nic Cage would not be successful in stealing any documents” — a reference, of course, to the star of “National Treasure,” the hit 2004 movie. 

“They have it behind a titanium case,” Jacobs continued about the Constitution. “Argon gas is in there to preserve it. Every night it disappears to an undisclosed location, and every morning it pops up again. 

“And the best part? I talked to the people who work there, the archivists. They said that when people see the Constitution, it inspires them to become involved. And whether that’s on a small scale, such as joining the PTA, or on a big scale, like running for state Congress, the idea is that this very tangible document is inspiring for us to remember.” 

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“The government is by the people and for the people,” he went on. “It is ‘we the people.’ It is just a very real, concrete reminder” of that.  

3. Get involved in democracy

“I learned a huge amount about American history,” said Jacobs. “I won’t say it was a painless process for either of us,” meaning himself and his three children.

“I wore a tricorn hat around New York City, and my kids wouldn’t be seen within 50 feet of me. I would go to a restaurant and I would sign the checks with a quill pen and ink. They were mortified.”

“I told the security folks who searched our bags that they might be violating our Fourth Amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure.”

“We went to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and I told the security folks who searched our bags that they might be violating our Fourth Amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure. My kids just couldn’t even look at me. 

“On the other hand, they had some wonderful times. One of them joined a Revolutionary War reenactment group and fought in a battle.”

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Another son, he said, got involved in cooking “and [took part in] an 18th century dinner party, where we cooked food with lots of cloves. They loved their cloves and nutmeg. So he made beef stew. He would not make turtle soup, which was my initial suggestion.

“And the oldest — occasionally he would come out and try to get petitions signed with me. We would go to Times Square with my big roll of paper.”

A.J. Jacobs on a horse

Said Jacobs, “All dads are embarrassing, but I [did] take it to another level. On the other hand, I think they became more aware of the way our government works and that you can get involved.” 

4. Know that voting ‘isn’t a chore’

Another “huge takeaway was that Election Day was a celebration, at least for those privileged enough to be able to vote. So it wasn’t like jury duty. It wasn’t annoying. It wasn’t some task, a chore. It was an inspiring right that they had never had before.” 

And “there were parades. There was music. There was a lot of rum punch. It wasn’t quite Coachella — but it was a joyous day to express your rights. 

“And there was cake. People would bake election cakes and sometimes huge ones. Fourteen pounds of sugar, one recipe called for — and they would bring the cakes to the polls to remind people of this amazing ability to vote and that we should celebrate it.” 

voting booth

“And I loved the idea of the election cake, and I thought: Let’s try to resurrect that. And so I went on Facebook, which I know is not very 18th century, but it is one of the older platforms. So I thought, maybe that’s OK. 

“And I got hundreds of people of all political persuasions to participate last November in election-cake baking. And people brought [their cakes] to the polls, or to work. And it was wonderful because it was a slice — no pun intended — of a little bit of positivity in a very stressful political time.”

“The point is to celebrate this right that humans have not had for most of their history to choose their own leader.”

“There is actual evidence,” he said, “that if you make elections more festive, then more people will come to vote. And I think that’s a good thing.

“So I loved this idea and I am going to do it again. The ‘election cake project’ is [happening] again this November, and I would love anyone out there who’s interested in participating to come and bake a cake.”

“The point is to celebrate this right that humans have not had for most of their history” to vote.  

“So yes, let’s bake cakes for America.” 

5. Cherish the ‘freedom to choose our leaders’

His deep dive into the Constitution, said Jacobs, emphasized “that America is a lot about the freedom to choose your own leaders. And democracy is so important. 

“The Founding Fathers were so afraid of monarchy. They hated monarchy. And I think I would love to get back to that feeling of ‘we do not want anything to do with monarchy.’ Even in our pop culture, it’s very funny and weird to me that we have things such as Disney princesses.”

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“I say make this Disney Congress — forget Disney princesses. Let’s have a Disney republic instead of a Disney kingdom.” 

And “let’s celebrate the fact,” he added, “that we don’t have to bow to a king, that we can choose our own leaders, which is what America is all about.” 

6. Help others; reach out to neighbors

“One other takeaway is the idea of virtue, which was huge back in the founding era. Virtue meant self-sacrifice. It meant putting the greater good ahead of your own desires.” 

And so “we have, famously, a Bill of Rights, which is wonderful. I love that. On the other hand, I think the Founders had an implied ‘Bill of Responsibilities.’ If they thought that we would forget about our responsibilities, they might have written it down.”

A.J. Jacobs with petition

“But back then, it was just assumed you would be part of the bucket brigade and help put out fires. You would help people build houses. You would help your neighbor. 

“And that is another mindset that I think needs to be revived.” 

7. Be grateful for what we have 

“There are parts of modern life I was happy to return to,” said Jacobs.  

“I did, actually — during my year of living constitutionally — go to the doctor, the dermatologist, to get a mole removed,” he said.

“And since I like to commit to [what I’m doing], I asked the dermatologist to take it off without anesthesia.”

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“And she refused, for liability reasons. Which I guess I’m probably overall happy with, because I do like anesthesia. I am a fan of anesthesia.”

Brittany Kasko of Fox News Digital contributed reporting.

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