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This fall is really shaping up to be the season of important new books in US history. Gary Nash has a brand new synthesis, The Unknown American Revolution, a comprehensive and highly readable survey that properly puts small farmers, artisans, blacks, Indians, and women at the center of the story. Sean Wilentz has just published a massive tome entitled The Rise of American Democracy: From Jefferson to Lincoln, which looks to be of interest to kossacks because of its sympathetic treatment of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the founders of the Democratic Party.

A third recent, important, and highly timely history book is Yale Law professor Akhil Reed Amar's America's Constitution: A Biography. Some of us remember Amar from the Bush v. Gore case, when he briefly became a talking head commenting on the history of the electoral college. According to his amazon reviews, however, he has long been known as one of the more popular professors at Yale Law School. In America's Constitution, it appears he has put together a definitive revisionist look at how the Constitution was approved.

More on the flip...

First, a confession. I haven't read the book yet, or even held it in my hands. The book is new enough (September 2005 publication date) that amazon hasn't even made available a "look inside" function for it. Scott Turow, however, published a fairly comprehensive, and favorable, review of the book in the September 25 Washington Post, and the discussion here follows that review.

Amar takes issue with the Beardian interpretation of the Constitution as a conservative document. Beard had contrasted the supposedly radical Declaration of Independence ("all men are created equal") with a Constitution that served the wealthy. The three-fifths compromise in particular, which counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for congressional representation, highlighted for Beard the Constitution's anti-democratic character.

Amar turns this argument on its head. Quoting Turow:

Beginning with its ringing first words -- "We the People of the United States" -- the Constitution, in his view, embodies a profoundly democratic vision of the nation it summoned into being. He points out that the ratification process for the new Constitution "allowed a uniquely broad class of citizens to vote" for the delegates to the state conventions that approved the document -- often reducing (or, in the case of New York, entirely abandoning) property qualifications for free adult males wanting to vote.

The Constitution in fact contains a vision of fundamentally equal citizens; Madison famously celebrated (in Federalist #57) the fact that it permitted "no qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession" for any federal office, up to and including President of the United States.

The appeal to a national citizenry composed of equals was essential for accomplishing a fundamental purpose of the Constitution: forging a single national identity out of the fractured allegiances of the citizens of the thirteen sovereign states, in order to save the Union from its immediate crisis and project it into the foreseeable future.

Amar also offers novel interpretations relevant to the New Federalism (which he seems to like) and strict constructionism, which in his hands takes on entirely different implications from the way we usually understand it:

Amar also emphasizes that contemporary judicial power, in which even the supposedly conservative Rehnquist court freely declared acts of Congress constitutionally out-of-bounds, may itself be a departure from the original text, notwithstanding the mantra-like invocations of "strict construction." The Constitution speaks repeatedly of a "supreme Court" -- with, as Amar points out, a small "s." As envisioned by the framers, the judicial branch was clearly subordinate to the other two. Judges were selected through the combined power of the president and Senate, and the courts' authority to hear appeals was to be exercised "with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make." The size of the Supreme Court and the very existence and location of inferior federal courts were purely matters of congressional will. Thus the words of the Constitution give little reason to anticipate that the Supreme Court, for example, would decide a presidential election, as it did in 2000, rather than leaving the matter to Congress. Amar's gloss on the text helps explain a growing cleavage on the right in which congressional conservatives like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) have recently criticized even the Rehnquist court for having far overreached its constitutional role.

Turow loved this book. He concluded his review like this:

I expect to be taking Amar's volume off my shelf for years to come as an indispensable reference whenever I want to know more about the actual words that underpin contemporary constitutional debates.

I wonder has anyone in the dkos world read this book? Any thoughts on what it all might mean, as John Roberts begins to exert his power as Chief Justice and the Senate considers filibustering Alito?

Originally posted to litho on Tue Nov 22, 2005 at 05:47 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for the info (none)
    I just flipped through an earlier book of Amar's (cleverly named The Bill of Rights — he's got boffo titles) at B&N a few days ago. He gets good reviews from left and right. A common meme was "essential reference book." Didn't look like light reading material for laymen, but I was planning to pick it up this week and give it a slog. Now I'm wondering if I should wait and tackle both of them! (FWIW, I just finished Leonard Levy's not-too-dense Origin of the Bill of Rights, and really enjoyed it.)


    •  My sense (none)
      from his talking head days (the 2000 election) is that Amar is really smart. I'm planning to pick up a copy of America's Constitution when I get a chance.

      I've paged through Levy's book a couple of times, but never had the guts to pull the trigger and buy it. Now I'm wondering, though, if it might be better just to go straight to Amar's take on it...

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