Adults who remember history class as boring memorization of dates are discovering a new interest in civics — how our government works.
An educator for more than three decades, John Sullivan happily answers their questions and delivers details on the U.S. Constitution, its history and relevance to current events during informal weekly discussions at The Bird and the Book in Maryville.
Sullivan’s Chicago Cubs hat first caught the attention of Southland Books and Cafe co-owner Lisa Misosky when he walked into the shop last summer.
While they talked, he impressed her not only with his choice of baseball team but extensive knowledge of the Constitution and the fact he’s not a Republican or a Democrat.
“I’ve always been kind of a political independent,” Sullivan said. “No party has a monopoly on anything as far as the good or the bad.”
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Loyola University Chicago. As a high school teacher and college professor in Illinois and Indiana, Sullivan has taught U.S. history, world affairs and foreign policy.
Although he’s retired from that line of work, professors at Maryville College and the University of Tennessee have invited him in as a guest lecturer on topics including the Electoral College.
Knowing that most people remember little about the Constitution beyond a handful of the amendments and that interest in government is heating up as the 2020 election approaches, Misosky invited Sullivan to hold weekly gatherings downstairs at The Bird and the Book. Attendance is free, but folks can order from the restaurant.
Civics 101 began in October and took a couple of weeks off for the holidays. Attendance has ranged from a handful to more than a dozen.
To kick off the new year, Sullivan went back to the beginning on Jan. 7, starting with the Revolutionary War.
“To me the Declaration of Independence is our birth certificate as a nation,” Sullivan said as he sat in comfortable seating in a corner of the restaurant with a handful of others listening.
He went on to explain how under the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, the 13 states had different currencies and foreign policies. “The Unites States of America was the dis-United States of America,” he said.
As he talks, Sullivan can cite points by article, section and clause of the Constitution, but he also sets the scene in history, such as when 55 men — white property owners well read in politics and philosophy — gathered in the heat of the Philadelphia summer in 1787, clad in wool clothes at a time when, he noted, bathing wasn’t a daily practice. “It had to get kind of interesting in those rooms,” he said.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were not there, but Ben Franklin was, he explained, offering as an aside, “If you want to read about somebody who just blows your mind, read about Benjamin Franklin.”
Sullivan detailed how the bicameral system laid out in the Constitution evolved. “They had to compromise all over the place,” he said.
Originally, the only people who could vote for members of the House of Representatives would be white men age 21 or older who owned property. Until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures selected senators.
Sullivan noted that after about 6,000 proposals to amend the Constitution, only 27 have passed. Of course, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, Prohibition.
As participants turned to current events last week, Sullivan noted that while Article 1 gives Congress the power to declare war, Article II makes the president commander in chief of the military. “It gets kind of dicey sometimes,” he said.
Then there’s what’s known as the “Elastic Clause” — Article 1, Section 8 — which gives Congress the authority to do what is “necessary and proper.” So, for example, while the Founders didn’t envision an Air Force when they wrote the document, that’s covered.
“The Constitution has some brilliant aspects to it,” Sullivan said, adding, “It’s not a perfect document.”
Before Sullivan began his history lesson last week, attendees started the conversation asking about the specifics of what impeachment means and how it is handled. Over an hour or so, the conversation also touched on Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and John McCain.
“I open it up to what they want to discuss,” Sullivan explained, adding, “We’re living in very interesting times.”