A More Perfect Union

“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, 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.”


Launched in 2003, the Wisconsin Humanities Council created the A More Perfect Union series of book discussion programs to explore themes drawn from the preamble to the US Constitution. Discussions took place all over the state and were hosted by more than 50 libraries, book clubs, churches, schools and other groups. The WHC received a Cross Divisional Grant from the University of Wisconsin-Extension to jump-start this initiative.
The first set of books included:

  • Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
  • The Oresteia by Aeschylus
  • The Children’s Story by James Clavell

Together the books explore ethical questions faced by political leaders and citizens. Scholar-led conversations and a discussion guide helped participants probe questions such as: What kinds of ethical compromises did our Founding Fathers tolerate in order to form “a more perfect union”? What kinds of ethical compromises, if any, are we willing to tolerate today?

Historian Joseph Ellis, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, presented at special events on the UW-Whitewater campus and at the Wisconsin Book Festival. His book and talks helped set the tone for the A More Perfect Union series by vividly portraying the personalities, struggles, and highly contingent nature of historic events that today can seem inevitable.

The Common Defense

Four book covers

What did the Founding Fathers mean by “the common defense?” Did they mean we should defend our borders? Our sovereignty? Our values? Our economic interests? And today, what moral and ethical issues come with being a military super power?

The four books in this series were chosen to present varied perspectives and provoke discussion about war. What values shape US foreign policy? What do you think the proper role is for the military? People across the state came together for thoughtful conversations guided by humanities scholars.

Authors Christian Appy and Philip Gourevitch presented at the 2005 Wisconsin Book Festival. Both spoke about the research they did for their books and led discussions about the Vietnam War and the ethnic genocide in Rwanda, respectively.

To Establish Justice

Four book covers

This series was designed to raise questions about the roles that both elected officials and common citizens play in the quest for justice. What does justice mean for us as individuals? What does it mean for the nation? How have the many struggles against injustice, and for justice, shaped our nation’s history? And when and how do we choose to stand up against injustice in our lives?

Red Hook Justice,” a film about an experimental community court in Brooklyn, was made available as part of this series thanks to a partnership with Wisconsin Public Television. The film was screened and authors Anthony Grooms, Marge Piercy, and James Yee presented at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival.

Domestic Tranquility

Domestic Tranquility four books

How do individuals seek the life they wish to live when society stands in the way? How do we live peacefully among neighbors with whom we have profound differences? How do we share our land peacefully? These questions and more were part of the discussions provoked by these four books and moderated by humanities scholars at events statewide.

As environmental crises and the challenges of immigration continue to play important roles in US domestic policy, the federal government’s actions (and inaction) are at the center of both of these issues. What responsibility does the federal government have to regulate access to land and resources? How must it protect our borders? What are the threats to our nation’s tranquility, and what things may be perceived (truly or falsely) as such?

The authors T.C. Boyle and Luis Alberto Urrea participated in conversations on the subject at the 2007 Wisconsin Book Festival.

Participating Organizations

Libraries and other community groups all around the state participated by borrowing a set of the books and hosting community discussions. They include:

Aram Public Library
Christ Presbyterian Church
Clear Lake Library
Clinton Public Library
Dwight Foster Public Library
Edgewood High School
Educational Communications Board
Fairhaven Book Group
Flambeau School Community Education
Forest Lodge Library
Frank L. Weyenberg Library
Friends of the Mazomanie Free Library
Gays Mills Public Library
Hales Corners Library
Hancock Public Library
Hawkins Area Library
Institute for Learning Retirement (ILR)
Irma Stein Memorial Library
Jane Morgan Memorial Library
Karl Junginger Memorial Waterloo Public Library
L.D. Fargo Public Library
Lake Geneva Public Library
Lawton Library
League of Women Voters of Janesville
Madison Public Library
Madison Public Library-Sequoya Branch
Manitowoc Public Library
Mead Public Library
Memorial High School
Menomonie Public Library
Muskego Public Library
Neillsville Public Library
New Berlin Public Library
Oneida Community Library
Port Washington Senior Center
Portage County Public Library
Powers Memorial Library
Prairie du Sac Public Library
Prairie Farm Community Ed
Richland County Blue Highways Book Club
Rosemary Garfoot Public Library
Rusk County Community Library
Sauk City Public Library
Servite Center for Life
South Central Wisconsin United Nations Association
Superior Public Library
Tomahawk Book Club
Union Congregational Church
UW-Marathon County Continuing Education
Verbal Book Club of Waukesha
Verona Area High School
Walter E. Olson Memorial Library
Waupaca Area Public Library
Wisconsin Educational Communications Board