Raised on the US Constitution, Utah woman now helping other countries write their own

When you meet Lorianne Updike Toler for the first time, you’re surprised by what you find. She’s blond, trim, green-eyed, ivory-skinned, smiling — and young. This woman should be worn out. You expect gray hair and wrinkles; instead, you get a Clinique ad.

This can’t be the woman who completed — take a deep breath — nine internships and a degree at BYU by the time she was 20, served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, graduated magna cum laude from BYU law school, founded and almost singlehandedly started a first-of-its kind online searchable library of source materials for the Constitution, completed a master’s program at Oxford, shook up academia with the rediscovery of a lost draft of the Constitution, started a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, married and had a baby, wrote a book, moved back and forth between London, New York and Philadelphia, started a consulting firm in London and undertook a consulting job in Libya. And she did much of this while she was in and out of a wheelchair.

Toler is only 33; her resume reads like 63.

“From a young age, I had a dream to be a constitutional lawyer, start a broad-based nonprofit on the Constitution and help write constitutions,” she says. “I just thought I’d be old and gray when I did the last two.”

Only recently has she slowed her pace, taking an eight-year leave of absence from her doctoral studies to tend her infant son.

“I also wanted to have a large family and the family life everyone dreams of, but the Lord had other plans, and I would do a lot of that other stuff before motherhood,” she says.

Toler was in Salt Lake City recently to promote her book, “The Other Side of Charity — The Art of Receiving Gracefully,” which has its genesis in her own illness and the charity this independent, intelligent woman had to learn to accept. But to understand that part of her story, you’d have to understand the other parts.

Toler’s professional raison d’etre is the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. While other girls were playing with dolls, she was reading about James Madison and the Federalist Papers. No, really. All of which is how she found herself in the Pennsylvania Historical Society searching boxes of documents — there are 21 million of them there — in 2009 as part of her master’s research.

She was examining what most experts consider to be the first draft of the Constitution when she noticed three upside down paragraphs on the last page of the document, beginning with “We The People” and written in the hand of James Wilson. Toler was mystified until she examined other Wilson documents and found what she considered the rest of the draft, titled “The Continuation of the Scheme.”

“This was the kind of moment historians dream about,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “This was national scripture, a piece of our Constitution’s history. It was difficult to keep my hands from trembling.” She recalled that as other researchers realized what was happening, a hush fell over the room. “One of them said the hair on her arms stood on end,” she says.

Toler believes the document to be the true first draft of the Constitution. The historical society had only two on file. The so-called first draft, making three in all, had been overlooked since it was identified in 1911 by Yale historian Max Farrand. No one knows how “The Continuation of the Scheme” had been separated from the other drafts.

“To me, this is proof that James Wilson by himself actually wrote the Constitution,” Toler says. “That would make him like Jefferson authoring the Declaration of Independence.”

Historically, James Madison has been considered the father of the Constitution, but Toler notes, “Not one draft is in James Madison’s hand.”

Wilson died in disgrace, suffering from malaria and creditors.

There are other reasons Toler considers her discovery significant: “To me, it shows that Wilson is working by himself. In this first draft, he begins and stops. He jots things on another piece of paper. This hesitation demonstrates Wilson is not working in a group. And he is all we see from this rocky start to the Constitution’s first working draft. Not that he is an original author. But he goes beyond the limits of the Convention’s Virginia Plan structure in pulling details from the Pinckney Plan, the Patterson Plan, the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution. He is the mastermind organizing the information and creates a few things that are uniquely his. He becomes enormously important.”

There was some debate in academia about Toler’s conclusions, although some of those who initially challenged her have come around. It is worth noting that the draft Toler rediscovered has been moved to a more secure vault with Wilson’s other drafts and Committee of Detail documents. The document is identified with other drafts in an article Toler co-authored in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s own academic journal.

“Although I don’t speak for the Historical Society (or other academics), it seems as if the issue is now resolved,” she concludes.

Anyone who knew Toler in her formative years won’t be surprised by her passion and energy for such matters. She was a precocious and driven child. Her preschool teacher told Toler’s mother she was the first 5-year-old student body president she ever met. A self-described geek — how else would you describe a gangly, freckled, academic teen who read a 700-page book on the Constitution when she was 11, just for fun? — Toler was home-schooled for two years in junior high, as were her siblings. Her mother’s curriculum was heavy on history and the Founding Fathers.

John and Lauri Updike made politics a frequent topic of conversation around the house. John was a hospital executive and Lauri a lobbyist for Eagle Forum. When the Legislature was in session, Toler did her homework in the gallery of the state Capitol while her mother worked.

“I loved it,” she says. “I was like an intern. When Mom needed a bill or needed us to keep her awake or take notes, I would help her. I paid attention to the things happening on the floor. I made a game out of memorizing all the representatives’ names.” When she was in her early teens, Toler met constitutional experts through her mother’s contacts and attended their lectures at BYU.

When she entered Timpview High, Toler hit the ground running. She was a dynamo of homework, extracurricular activities, reading, clubs, exercise and piano practice. She was doing this on three hours of sleep until her parents intervened and insisted on five.

Toler took four AP classes each year and graduated a year early, even after skipping a grade. She entered BYU at the age of 17. “I probably could have graduated in two years,” she says. “I just had a lot of dreams.”

While in high school, she entered a speech contest for the Freedom Festival. She wound up speaking on the same program as Gov. Mike Leavitt and BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland in the Marriott Center. “It gave me an opportunity to do my own research on the Founding Fathers,” she says. “And I fell in love with it. I got to know the Founders. I was really inspired by them.”

She graduated from BYU in three years with a degree in public relations. After serving a mission in Sydney, Australia, she completed a law degree at BYU. She served an internship with a law firm in Washington, D.C.

“I intended to work for a big law firm,” she says. “I thought I’d do appellate law. That was my big plan.”

It never happened. Other things diverted her attention and then fate intervened. After serving her internship in Washington, during her third year of law school, an old illness flared up again.

She lost motor control of her legs and was unable to walk. It wasn’t the first time she had experienced such symptoms. It had happened twice in high school. She had two more episodes on her mission, the last one leaving her hospitalized, unconscious and unable to move when she woke up. She was sent home six months early in a wheelchair. The symptoms returned at BYU, forcing her to attend law classes in a wheelchair.

The symptoms mimicked multiple sclerosis. The episodes lasted anywhere from 24 hours to one month. Over the course of 11 years, she saw 33 doctors and wound up at the Mayo Clinic before anyone could diagnose the problem.

“A God-fearing, inspired Christian internist told me I needed to go to a really good psychologist, my bishop and the Lord,” she says. “He said, ‘You’re really complicated.’ ”

She saw therapists and read books “and finally I realized that I — this super high-functioning person — had a physical dysfunction that had an emotional root. It was hard to accept.”

She was diagnosed with Conversion Disorder, which causes neurological symptoms without a definable organic cause. The symptoms are triggered by stress or traumatic experiences. Toler was all of that. She had driven herself hard since her youth to the point of exhaustion — the three hours of sleep, the heavy load of AP classes, little social life. By the time she graduated from high school, she was almost the equivalent of a college junior.

“My mission president asked me why I was so driven,” she says. “He had to rein me in.”

The exhaustion in combination with several traumatic events in her life — her parents’ divorce, the deaths of two of her six siblings — proved too much for her system, although she didn’t realize it at the time. In times of stress, she tended to take charge and throw herself into work while suppressing her emotions. The symptoms tended to strike when she was weakest physically — after an illness or after fasting.

“I have been symptom-free since 2008,” she says. “I was promised in a blessing that my symptoms would depart once I started a family. Through counseling, self-reflection, study and a lot of prayer, I worked through all of the underlying issues that contributed to the long-term physical illness.”

The byproduct of her intense introspection is the book. “As a high-functioning person,” she says, “it was very difficult for me to accept help from others, but I was put in a situation where I had to. I starting writing the book thinking I would share it privately, but as I read a few things that were gospel-related on the subject, I thought I would have the courage to share this with others.”

The illness produced another byproduct. With the repeated onset of symptoms, she decided she wasn’t physically able to be an attorney, so she returned to her roots and pursued her real dream — constitutional legal policy. In Washington, she interviewed for jobs that didn’t exist, searching for direction.

“I wasn’t really interviewing,” she says. “I was just giving ideas of what I wanted to do so they could tell me how I could get there. Eventually, I talked to someone at a nonprofit.”

Immediately she envisioned an online constitutional library. During the next four years, she started, “a free online library of constitutional history that digitizes and cross-references source documents written by individuals who drafted, ratified, and influenced the creation of the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments.”

Since leaving Washington, Toler, who claims to be a homebody, has continued life in the fast lane. She married Lance Toler, who works in private equity, in 2009. A month after their marriage, she moved to London for five months to study at Cambridge and then at Oxford while her husband remained in Washington. The separation was difficult, so she told him she would return to Washington; instead, he found a job in London, two hours away.

A few months later, she started a constitutional consulting practice in London and accepted an offer to go to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 2011. Lance managed to get transferred to New York, and the couple commuted back and forth between Philadelphia and New York. Earlier this year, they returned to London to raise a family and to facilitate both of their careers.

Toler is focusing on motherhood, although she is doing so in typical, multitasking style. She is working on her doctorate 10 hours a week and continuing her constitutional consulting practice 15 hours a week. Her practice focuses on countries that are in transition or in a post-revolution state that are trying to re-establish government or revising or amending their constitutions.

Early this year, while seven months pregnant, she spent a month in Libya, advising various organizations on the process of writing Libya’s own constitution. She returned to Libya again in June and plans another visit later this year.

“How it is written is just as important, if not more important, than what’s in the constitution,” she says. “If people are involved in the creation process, if those who write it are respected, if they feel they have a voice in it and the process is transparent, they will respect the outcome. The goal is voluntary compliance with the law.”

For Toler, it is a labor of love. The girl who read 700-page tomes and attended lectures and grew to revere the American Founders is now traveling to other countries, helping future founders forge their own constitutions.

Doug Robinson’s columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: [email protected]