When Constitutions Took Over the World

In 1947, Kurt Gödel, Albert Einstein, and Oskar Morgenstern drove from Princeton to Trenton in Morgenstern’s car. The three men, who’d fled Nazi Europe and become close friends at the Institute for Advanced Study, were on their way to a courthouse where Gödel, an Austrian exile, was scheduled to take the U.S.-citizenship exam, something his two friends had done already. Morgenstern had founded game theory, Einstein had founded the theory of relativity, and Gödel, the greatest logician since Aristotle, had revolutionized mathematics and philosophy with his incompleteness theorems. Morgenstern drove. Gödel sat in the back. Einstein, up front with Morgenstern, turned around and said, teasing, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” Gödel looked stricken.

To prepare for his citizenship test, knowing that he’d be asked questions about the U.S. Constitution, Gödel had dedicated himself to the study of American history and constitutional law. Time and again, he’d phoned Morgenstern with rising panic about the exam. (Gödel, a paranoid recluse who later died of starvation, used the telephone to speak with people even when they were in the same room.) Morgenstern reassured him that “at most they might ask what sort of government we have.” But Gödel only grew more upset. Eventually, as Morgenstern later recalled, “he rather excitedly told me that in looking at the Constitution, to his distress, he had found some inner contradictions and that he could show how in a perfectly legal manner it would be possible for somebody to become a dictator and set up a Fascist regime, never intended by those who drew up the Constitution.” He’d found a logical flaw. Morgenstern told Einstein about Gödel’s theory; both of them told Gödel not to bring it up during the exam. When they got to the courtroom, the three men sat before a judge, who asked Gödel about the Austrian government.“It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship,” Gödel said.

“That is very bad,” the judge replied. “This could not happen in this country.”

Morgenstern and Einstein must have exchanged anxious glances. Gödel could not be stopped.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I can prove it.”

“Oh, God, let’s not go into this,” the judge said, and ended the examination.

More here by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker