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In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says it. We all know this much: the Constitution is neither immutable nor perfect. Amar shows us how the story of this one relatively compact document reflects the story of America more generally. (For example, much of the Constitution, including the glorious-sounding “We the People,” was lifted from existing American legal texts, including early state constitutions.) In short, the Constitution was as much a product of its environment as it was a product of its individual creators’ inspired genius. Despite the Constitution’s flaws, its role in guiding our republic has been nothing short of amazing. Skillfully placing the document in the context of late-eighteenth-century American politics, America’s Constitution explains, for instance, whether there is anything in the Constitution that is unamendable; the reason America adopted an electoral college; why a president must be at least thirty-five years old; and why–for now, at least–only those citizens who were born under the American flag can become president. From his unique perspective, Amar also gives us unconventional wisdom about the Constitution and its significance throughout the nation’s history. For one thing, we see that the Constitution has been far more democratic than is conventionally understood. Even though the document was drafted by white landholders, a remarkably large number of citizens (by the standards of 1787) were allowed to vote up or down on it, and the document’s later amendments eventually extended the vote to virtually all Americans. We also learn that the Founders’ Constitution was far more slavocratic than many would acknowledge: the “three fifths” clause gave the South extra political clout for every slave it owned or acquired. As a result, slaveholding Virginians held the presidency all but four of the Republic’s first thirty-six years, and proslavery forces eventually came to dominate much of the federal government prior to Lincoln’s election. Ambitious, even-handed, eminently accessible, and often surprising, America’s Constitution is an indispensable work, bound to become a standard reference for any student of history and all citizens of the United States.


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In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says In America’s Constitution, one of this era’s most accomplished constitutional law scholars, Akhil Reed Amar, gives the first comprehensive account of one of the world’s great political texts. Incisive, entertaining, and occasionally controversial, this “biography” of America’s framing document explains not only what the Constitution says but also why the Constitution says it. We all know this much: the Constitution is neither immutable nor perfect. Amar shows us how the story of this one relatively compact document reflects the story of America more generally. (For example, much of the Constitution, including the glorious-sounding “We the People,” was lifted from existing American legal texts, including early state constitutions.) In short, the Constitution was as much a product of its environment as it was a product of its individual creators’ inspired genius. Despite the Constitution’s flaws, its role in guiding our republic has been nothing short of amazing. Skillfully placing the document in the context of late-eighteenth-century American politics, America’s Constitution explains, for instance, whether there is anything in the Constitution that is unamendable; the reason America adopted an electoral college; why a president must be at least thirty-five years old; and why–for now, at least–only those citizens who were born under the American flag can become president. From his unique perspective, Amar also gives us unconventional wisdom about the Constitution and its significance throughout the nation’s history. For one thing, we see that the Constitution has been far more democratic than is conventionally understood. Even though the document was drafted by white landholders, a remarkably large number of citizens (by the standards of 1787) were allowed to vote up or down on it, and the document’s later amendments eventually extended the vote to virtually all Americans. We also learn that the Founders’ Constitution was far more slavocratic than many would acknowledge: the “three fifths” clause gave the South extra political clout for every slave it owned or acquired. As a result, slaveholding Virginians held the presidency all but four of the Republic’s first thirty-six years, and proslavery forces eventually came to dominate much of the federal government prior to Lincoln’s election. Ambitious, even-handed, eminently accessible, and often surprising, America’s Constitution is an indispensable work, bound to become a standard reference for any student of history and all citizens of the United States.

30 review for America's Constitution: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sylvia Moore

    This book is not the easiest read, but it's easier to read than I expected for a book written by a legal scholar. The author is careful to say that his analysis of the Constitution is based on his own interpretations of the historical record, and that other scholars have differing views on the subject. Nevertheless, I found the book to be quite compelling, and I learned a lot about why the Framers made the decisions they did. Of course, they weren't perfect people and they had a lot of This book is not the easiest read, but it's easier to read than I expected for a book written by a legal scholar. The author is careful to say that his analysis of the Constitution is based on his own interpretations of the historical record, and that other scholars have differing views on the subject. Nevertheless, I found the book to be quite compelling, and I learned a lot about why the Framers made the decisions they did. Of course, they weren't perfect people and they had a lot of disagreements about how the Constitution and our system of government should be structured. They could not have foreseen how some of the ideas they decided on for the Constitution are now, I believe, producing problems for the U.S. in the 21st century (the Electoral College, the two-Senators per state, lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices, strict separation of powers, etc). It's astonishing how much slavery influenced the Constitution, how much the Framers bent over backward to accommodate the slave-owning South. I believe that ugly legacy is haunting us today, and is a major reason why our country is struggling to pass progressive legislation and keep up with the modern world. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in how and why the Framers came up with their ideas.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Eric_W

    The historian HW Brands, in an article in The Atlantic, “Founder’s Chic” (September, 2003), has suggested that the reverence Americans, especially politicians, display toward the Constitution, is ill-placed. (We’re certainly seeing an over-abundance of Constitution worship on the part of the Republican candidates in 2011-2012 as I write this.) He argues the Founders, who barely agreed on anything and filled the final document with compromise after compromise, as revolutionaries, would be quite The historian HW Brands, in an article in The Atlantic, “Founder’s Chic” (September, 2003), has suggested that the reverence Americans, especially politicians, display toward the Constitution, is ill-placed. (We’re certainly seeing an over-abundance of Constitution worship on the part of the Republican candidates in 2011-2012 as I write this.) He argues the Founders, who barely agreed on anything and filled the final document with compromise after compromise, as revolutionaries, would be quite sympathetic with supporting an evolutionary document. Amar’s book goes a long way toward developing a thorough understand of the background and historicity of the document which everyone claims to understand but few do; a document that supports both dual (states and federal government share power equally) and cooperative federalism (some powers are reserved to the states but they remain subservient to the federal powers) simultaneously. We came perilously close to not having a constitution, and I am sure were it to be proposed in today’s climate, with today’s puny Washington minds, it would never be ratified. (Notice that even Michele Bachmann shut up about the Constitution after her little seminar with Scalia - he was probably speaking way over her head.) It is to the credit of the anti-Federalists, many of whom vigorously attacked the unauthorized work done by the Constitutional Convention (they were supposed to just rewrite the Articles of Confederation) that in the end they approved the Constitution, which in some states did not receive the required two-thirds vote majority, and went on to serve nobly in the new government, e.g., James Monroe. Some have argued the Constitution was a failure. It lasted only some seventy years and that only because of numerous compromises regarding slavery that became mere band-aids over a festering wound, an issue the original framers had decided to push off for later generations. It wasn’t until the Civil War and especially the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment with its application of rights to the states (albeit later gutted by the selective incorporation dictated by the Slaughterhouse cases in 1873 which mandated selective incorporation of the Bill of Rights)* that one could argue we achieved full freedoms. The fact remains that much of the Constitution is obscure and leaves wide latitude for interpretation. Sometimes using the words “persons”, sometimes the more populist sounding “people,” the ninth and tenth amendments have provided grist for many in the mill of public opinion. They would appear to “reserve” rights to the people and the states and imply that “nothing in the Bill of Rights should be read as conferring additional government power. . .[but] the Ninth Amendment warned readers not to draw certain types of negative inferences about constitutional rights. . . a text that explicitly expressed certain rights was not to be read to negate other constitutional rights derivable [or implied, a concept that has caused all sorts of controversy] from the document’s general structure.” (pg 327) For example, the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel could not be interpreted to negate a person’s right to represent himself. It’s ironic that the Federalists generally opposed a “bill of rights” because they feared that such explicit enumeration of rights would weaken generally more expansive protections of the original constitution and unintentionally reduce implicit rights. The Nionth amendment was the compromise that resulted. I could go on and on as is my usual wont. Amar’s structure for the book is unusual but quite readable, integrating concepts broadly yet chronologically. Chapter headings, “Making Amends” which discusses the first ten amendments, and “The New Birth of Freedom” which reviews events and amendments following the Civil War give only a broad hint as to content, but there is an excellent index and over one hundred pages of notes (I actually prefer footnotes, but then I’m a queer duck.) *Interestingly Clarence Thomas in McDonald v Chicago while concurring with the majority which used the due process clause to apply the 2nd amendment to the states, wanted to use the privileges and immunities clause which would have strengthened, IMHO, the Bill of Rights in its application to the states across the board. I think he was right.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Howard Olsen

    I read a review of this book, which said it is the best book about the Constitution since the Federalist Papers. Hyperbole? A little, but it's not far off the mark. Actually, reading this book makes you realize how few good books there are about the Constitution. Most are either technical works for the law review crowd on one hand, and large print flag-wavers for the coloring book crowd on the other. Amar writes with clarity. Anyone with a high school education can read this book, and enjoy it. I read a review of this book, which said it is the best book about the Constitution since the Federalist Papers. Hyperbole? A little, but it's not far off the mark. Actually, reading this book makes you realize how few good books there are about the Constitution. Most are either technical works for the law review crowd on one hand, and large print flag-wavers for the coloring book crowd on the other. Amar writes with clarity. Anyone with a high school education can read this book, and enjoy it. Still, this book has plenty of heft. Amar is not afraid to use the words "John Jay," always the sign of a serious work of constitutional scholarship. The basic structure of this book is simple. Amar marches through the Constitution from the Preamble, straight through to the 28th Amendment. His basic method is to use every bit of historic context-the articles of confederation, state constitutions, british history, the experience of the revolution, Madison's notes, ratification debates, and, of course, the Federalist Papers-to suss out the meaning and intent of every word in the Constitution. Amar's discussions are deep, but surprisingly accessible. Reading this, one is surprised anew at what is, and what is not, in the Constitution. Contra Planned Parenthood, there is no right to privacy. Contra limited gov't types, there is no line item veto. Also, there is no Federal Reserve, IRS, or judicial review. Much of what we think of as the federal gov't is based on nothing more than statute and case law, any of which can be changed on relatively short notice. My ONLY real complaint. Amar spends relatively little time on Congress's enumerated powers. I would have traded 15 pages of his recurring discussions on apportionment to read more about the commerce clause, for example. We are about to enter a period of congressional activism the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Gingrich Revolution. Proposals to rewrite securities laws, banking laws, reform health care, and change the weather will strain the federal government's "limited" powers. I would have liked to read a little more about this. This is a great work of history and constitutional interpretation. Although the Founders can be criticized for some shortcomings, namely those provisions that enhanced the power of the slave owning states, much of the framework they created remains in effect to this day (and the slavocentric sections have been amended into oblivion). Amar makes clear that this is a good thing, despite what latter day critics like Howard Zinn and the Living Constitution crowd might think. There really is no reason not to read this.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lobstergirl

    Amar pretty much goes Section by Section, Amendment by Amendment, though the Constitution and explains what it all means and provides the historical context. There is a strong emphasis on slavery (he considers the Constitution a powerfully pro-slavery document, becoming more pro-slavery as time went on due to the three-fifths clause, until the Civil War). His discussion of the Second Amendment was enlightening. He also makes the point that we need to unlearn the "fact" that we live in a republic Amar pretty much goes Section by Section, Amendment by Amendment, though the Constitution and explains what it all means and provides the historical context. There is a strong emphasis on slavery (he considers the Constitution a powerfully pro-slavery document, becoming more pro-slavery as time went on due to the three-fifths clause, until the Civil War). His discussion of the Second Amendment was enlightening. He also makes the point that we need to unlearn the "fact" that we live in a republic rather than a democracy, as the Founders intended. They actually used those terms interchangeably. So go ahead, repeat after me: "We live in a democracy. Or a republic. Whatevs." I can't say there weren't long passages where my eyes didn't glaze over, but still, this is a book accessible to both a scholarly reader and a mere history or law buff. Of course, the full text of the Constitution and Amendments are in the back for reference. 477 pages of text; 127 pages of notes.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    This book is jam-packed with surprisingly worthwhile information on almost every clause of the constitution. Its structure follows the constitution itself, from preamble to amendments, and although this might have given it the feeling of a reference book, Amar's interest in the document more than makes up for the lack of narrative. He plumbs the origins of the electoral system (slavery concerns were at the root of it, as in much else), the unforeseen consequences of the 22nd amendment limiting This book is jam-packed with surprisingly worthwhile information on almost every clause of the constitution. Its structure follows the constitution itself, from preamble to amendments, and although this might have given it the feeling of a reference book, Amar's interest in the document more than makes up for the lack of narrative. He plumbs the origins of the electoral system (slavery concerns were at the root of it, as in much else), the unforeseen consequences of the 22nd amendment limiting presidential terms (vice presidents became immensely more prestigious and powerful) and the interactions between federal and state constitutions (although the federal is modeled after Massachusett's 1780 constitution, afterwards states tended to mimic the national constitution). A great overview of the US government as seen through the constitution

  6. 5 out of 5

    Adam Shields

    Short Review: This was fascinating, detail, occasionally boring and still left me wanting more with some areas. I spend five months slowly working through this. There is about 450 pages of main content, which did feel both too long and not long enough. There is so much that could be written. But in an overview, you cannot talk about everything. What is most helpful is that Amar uses history, comparative legal analysis (with state constitutions, English common law and notes from drafts), legal Short Review: This was fascinating, detail, occasionally boring and still left me wanting more with some areas. I spend five months slowly working through this. There is about 450 pages of main content, which did feel both too long and not long enough. There is so much that could be written. But in an overview, you cannot talk about everything. What is most helpful is that Amar uses history, comparative legal analysis (with state constitutions, English common law and notes from drafts), legal history from court cases and political science analysis of what was possible to have been based based on political realities on the ground. This is more than just an analysis of what is in the constitution. That is here as well, but the parts around what is in the constitution is helpful to give context to the actual content. I think the best sections are the sections on the role and politics of slavery. That analysis is was very helpful to understanding not only the sections on 3/5 clause but the politics around other compromises that were impacted by slavery. It is a bit dry in places. But I am not sure that large sections of the book, could have been cut without harming the larger flow. I did think as I was reading it that it could have been re-organized in places. There was a fair amount of repetition that could have been cut. But most of those repetitive sections made sense if someone was trying to read different areas of the constitution instead of reading the book as a whole straight through. My full review is on my blog at http://bookwi.se/americas-constitution/

  7. 5 out of 5

    William Schram

    America’s Constitution by Akhil Reed Amar is brilliant and enthralling. All of the Articles in the Constitution have an interesting history as to why they exist. Looking through a wide range of sources from The Federalist Papers to personal missives from the founding fathers, we can see that the Constitution was a massive political balancing act attempting to appease everyone in the emergent United States. The book goes through all the Articles as I mentioned before, and it has parts that cover America’s Constitution by Akhil Reed Amar is brilliant and enthralling. All of the Articles in the Constitution have an interesting history as to why they exist. Looking through a wide range of sources from The Federalist Papers to personal missives from the founding fathers, we can see that the Constitution was a massive political balancing act attempting to appease everyone in the emergent United States. The book goes through all the Articles as I mentioned before, and it has parts that cover the Amendments to the Constitution. It covers the political situations that forced the hand of lawmakers and it talks about other historical events as well. The end of the book contains the full Constitution with all of the Amendments. In the margins, it contains the page numbers where the book discusses that particular law. The book contains extensive notes and an index. All in all, this book is really good. It is thoroughly researched and very interesting.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Richard Budden

    An accessible and thorough account of the U.S Constitution, written by a legal scholar but including historical and political science perspectives. Most constitutional scholarship focuses on one historical era, one amendment, one branch of government, etc. Amar provides a sufficiently deep explanation of the entire document and its amendments.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Harold

    This isn’t a biography, but a historical (and occasionally linguistic) analysis of the Constitution. There are some really interesting points, particularly early on. Why did it make sense for the Colonies to form one country instead of separate countries, particularly given the dramatic disagreement over slavery, which, as Amar points out repetitively, is reflected throughout the Constitution in ways very favorable to the slave states. But the Constitution is repetitive in parts, and many of the This isn’t a biography, but a historical (and occasionally linguistic) analysis of the Constitution. There are some really interesting points, particularly early on. Why did it make sense for the Colonies to form one country instead of separate countries, particularly given the dramatic disagreement over slavery, which, as Amar points out repetitively, is reflected throughout the Constitution in ways very favorable to the slave states. But the Constitution is repetitive in parts, and many of the same historical questions cover different sections, and accordingly the book covers the same territory more than once. But the Constitution and the history are both dense, and multiple readings from slightly different perspectives are not unrewarding. More than that, focusing on the language of the Constitution, and not just the Amendments which may be more familiar, demonstrates how clunky some of the language is, but how elegant (and controversial) were some of the provisions, a lesson that in our time is worth repeating (and rereading).

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    It took more determination than usual but I finished. This book is not a light read. It is telling that the author begins his postscript, "Any reader hardy enough to have made it thus far deserves both my thanks and an explanation." The author takes you through the Constitution virtually line by line. He illustrates how the document was conceived in 1787 and the motivations of Madison and the other authors. Every article and amendment is discussed in terms of the motivations of the authors, the It took more determination than usual but I finished. This book is not a light read. It is telling that the author begins his postscript, "Any reader hardy enough to have made it thus far deserves both my thanks and an explanation." The author takes you through the Constitution virtually line by line. He illustrates how the document was conceived in 1787 and the motivations of Madison and the other authors. Every article and amendment is discussed in terms of the motivations of the authors, the various interpretations and the consequences both intended and unintended. Part of the reason the book is so challenging is because Amar makes you realize how carefully the Constitution needs to be read. At times I felt like I was reading a text book. But I found the book became much more readable as he moved into the discussion of the amendments, particularly those of the reconstruction period. Anyone who has a deep interest in American history will find this to be well worth the effort. It can sometimes be a bit dry but you will come away with a much better understanding of the Constitution and American history.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    Amar tries to provide what he calls a "biography" of the US Constitution, combining scholarship from law, history, and political science. He introduces some controversial ideas, such as his claim that the Philadelphia plan was essentially slavocratic--and became more so over time because of the unintended effects of the 3/5 compromise on the distribution of power in the house, the Senate, and (through the electoral college) the Presidency (and thus the Supreme Court). Amar shows how through the Amar tries to provide what he calls a "biography" of the US Constitution, combining scholarship from law, history, and political science. He introduces some controversial ideas, such as his claim that the Philadelphia plan was essentially slavocratic--and became more so over time because of the unintended effects of the 3/5 compromise on the distribution of power in the house, the Senate, and (through the electoral college) the Presidency (and thus the Supreme Court). Amar shows how through the amending process the Constitution has expanded liberty over time. I was fascinated by his analysis of how the seemingly small decision to list amendments at the end of the document rather than changing the text itself made the Constitution a guide to its own history. Not everyone will agree with everything Amar argues, and some sections may be too dense and detailed for some, but this is an excellent analysis of the Constitution.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Harper Jean

    An ambitious blend of legal, historical, and political-science scholarship, this book examines in depth nearly ever aspect of our foundational document and how it got to be that way, including all 27 amendments so far. Law and history geeks will love it. Chapters 1-2 (on the Articles of Confederation, the process of enactment, and the basic structure of American government), 7 (state-federal relations), and 9-10 (the first 15 amendments) should be required reading for all Americans. Among other An ambitious blend of legal, historical, and political-science scholarship, this book examines in depth nearly ever aspect of our foundational document and how it got to be that way, including all 27 amendments so far. Law and history geeks will love it. Chapters 1-2 (on the Articles of Confederation, the process of enactment, and the basic structure of American government), 7 (state-federal relations), and 9-10 (the first 15 amendments) should be required reading for all Americans. Among other things, these chapters show how the original constitutional was in various ways more democratic, more geostrategically motivated, and more designed to entrench the system of slavery than is generally known; and how the post-Civil War amendments radically reshaped our nation's charter, in essence constituting a second founding.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    Referenced in Tribe's Invisible Constitution (p. 52-53): "As a committed "constitutional textualist," Professor Amar rejects the theory that the Constitution can be amended informally, without any change in its official text. His highly original work of Scholarship "America's Constitution: A biography" argues, however, that what constitutes the Constitution's text has been misunderstood by historians and legal scholars alike. By viewing the Constitution in historical context, by attributing Referenced in Tribe's Invisible Constitution (p. 52-53): "As a committed "constitutional textualist," Professor Amar rejects the theory that the Constitution can be amended informally, without any change in its official text. His highly original work of Scholarship "America's Constitution: A biography" argues, however, that what constitutes the Constitution's text has been misunderstood by historians and legal scholars alike. By viewing the Constitution in historical context, by attributing globally transformative meaning to each textually promulgated constitutional change, and by giving more textual weight to the post -1865 formal constitutional amendments, Amar reads the written Constitution as a far more progressive text than the Constitution imagined by conservative textualists."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Absolutely wonderful history of the document everyone talks about but few understand. Amar provides context with lucidity and deep scholarly understanding, describing the whys and wherefores of how our founding legal basis was created, established, and added to. While fairly detailed, this is written in such language that the nonscholar will have no difficulty. I could almost suggest this be taught in high school. It would dispel many of the myths commonly believed by most people, even those Absolutely wonderful history of the document everyone talks about but few understand. Amar provides context with lucidity and deep scholarly understanding, describing the whys and wherefores of how our founding legal basis was created, established, and added to. While fairly detailed, this is written in such language that the nonscholar will have no difficulty. I could almost suggest this be taught in high school. It would dispel many of the myths commonly believed by most people, even those whose jobs encompass telling the rest of us what the Constitution says and means.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Seth

    I think Akhil Amar is one of the most interesting thinkers out there. This book nicely and comprehensively walks through the Constitution, providing a descriptive, historic overview of its creation along with Amar's distinct analyses as to the history of its creation and the interpretations of various provisions. One of the few books of its kind that is just as good for lawyers as for laypeople.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Glen Stott

    I studied the Constitution for a couple of weeks in my high school American History class, I have read it through several times over the years – several more times in the last 8 years, and I have read and studied the Federalist Papers in the past and again in the last 8 years. I would never claim to be an expert on the Constitution, but I felt I had pretty good understanding of it. Amar’s book has convinced me otherwise. Amar examines the Constitution from the Preamble; article by article, and I studied the Constitution for a couple of weeks in my high school American History class, I have read it through several times over the years – several more times in the last 8 years, and I have read and studied the Federalist Papers in the past and again in the last 8 years. I would never claim to be an expert on the Constitution, but I felt I had pretty good understanding of it. Amar’s book has convinced me otherwise. Amar examines the Constitution from the Preamble; article by article, and amendment by amendment, to the final amendment #27. He tackles it principal by principal – sometimes sentence by sentence bringing forth many issues. His analysis involves laws existing at the time, the impact of state and colonial constitutions, actions perpetrated by England against the Colonies that the Constitution was designed to prevent the new government from copying, negotiations that led to final draft of the Constitutional, things the drafters said at the time and later, arguments presented on both sides during the national debate over the ratification, etc. He provides a similarly thorough examination of each of the 27 amendments. Following are some things where I have been way off center. I understood the 3/5ths rule whereby slave states could count 3/5ths of the total number of slaves within its borders when calculating how many representatives they would have in the House of Representatives. I recognized it as a necessary compromise not realizing that this also gave southern states the 3/5ths credit when the number of presidential electoral votes was allotted. Without examining the impact of that compromise during the antebellum years, one fails to recognize how racist the Constitution was in its impact on the whole country. This compromise gave southern states outsized impact on the legal culture of the country. Five of the first six Presidents were from the South. Because the Supreme Court Justices were selected by the President (with advice and consent of the Senate) this gave Southern States a leg up to pack the Supreme Court with justices that leaned toward southern slave interests. All branches of the government were tilted toward southern interests – slavery being the primary concern. This resulted in many laws and legal decisions that favored slavery, including the infamous Dred Scott decision. In addition to the obvious 3/5ths rule, there are other clauses in the Constitution that support slavery without using the word slavery. Things that support legal entitlement to property across state lines and property taxation that protect slaveowners from some taxes on slaves as property are a couple of examples. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments corrected the slavery tilt of the Constitution. Unfortunately, the southerners and the Democratic Party managed to weaken the impact of these amendments until the 1960’s when bipartisan efforts finally corrected the legal impediments. Regrettably, complete equality has not yet been achieved, but that is another story, not directly related to the Constitution. My understanding of the 2nd amendment was strongly in agreement with my gun-toting friends. However, understanding how militias were organized and used during colonial times and the impact militias played in the revolutionary war, contrasted to the laws England tried to use to limit people’s right to bear arms, leads me to different conclusion. When militias were called up, the government could not arm them; militias depended upon the personal arms of the people. Thinking logically about the important part militia played in the late 18th century America, I don’t believe there would be an amendment regarding arms if it were not for the roll personal arms played when calling up the militia. Today, whether it be the federal military or state national guards, arms are provide by the government. This fact tends to make the 2nd amendment irrelevent. However, there are other constitutional arguments in favor of individual rights to own arms. After the civil war, the concept of “the people” being seen as a group, evolved into individuals with individual rights and the right of persons to have and bear arms shifted from a militia concept to an individual right. On top of that, the 9th and 10th amendments preclude the government from exerting any power not expressly given in the Constitution. Since the Constitution does not give the government the power to legislate against individual ownership of arms, it cannot pass laws to control those rights, (Although many interpret the commerce clause as an invalidation of all constitutional control over government, I reject that). Consequently, I still support the individual’s right to own and use arms as a constitutional right, but I do it based upon a different interpretation of the Constitution and its amendments. Well, I’m not going to detail all the other misconceptions I had. Some other interesting facts I wasn’t aware of. Road Island did not send representatives to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Road Island did not ratify the Constitution and become a state until after the United States was formed; when George Washington took office, the United States consisted of only twelve states. This was the most enlightening book I have studied related to the Constitution. It was well worth the read and I’ll probably read it again.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Lara Hermanson

    Today I am less stupid than yesterday

  18. 5 out of 5

    Al

    a great American history book!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alexander

    A great book that I highly recommend. This is a book, which, along with a few other books and articles, has come to really guide my current approach and understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Li

    Far superior to the follow up book "The Unwritten Constitution", A Biography is fairly interesting and contributes a lot to my historical understanding of the Constitution. The book is not by any means an exhaustive exploration of the Constitution, rather it is a commentary on various parts that Amar finds interesting or has clever observations on. A word on the language and tone of the book. It does not read like a typical law book, which seems a bit authoritative. Amar's writing gushes (Posner Far superior to the follow up book "The Unwritten Constitution", A Biography is fairly interesting and contributes a lot to my historical understanding of the Constitution. The book is not by any means an exhaustive exploration of the Constitution, rather it is a commentary on various parts that Amar finds interesting or has clever observations on. A word on the language and tone of the book. It does not read like a typical law book, which seems a bit authoritative. Amar's writing gushes (Posner compared it to the demeanor of a cheerleader), can be snide and sometimes trips over itself in trying to be clever or referential (there is at least one joke in the book punning Taft's weight). It's an open question whether that's a good or a bad tone for this kind of book. The strength of this book is the various historical research that Amar discusses as well as the more grounded non-obvious implications of the text of the constitution. Particularly interesting to me, was the question of the legality of the constitution. He raises the question on how the Articles of Confederation could properly be replaced by the Constitution and answers it by explaining treaty conceptions of the 18th century which allowed rescission in the event of breach (which state breached though, was left unclear politically). Amar shows that the ratification process was remarkably democratic (at least for the time), and that many states suspended property qualifications and none increased qualifications for the conventions which bolstered the popular aspect of ratification (both dodging the state legislatures who loathed to give up their power and increasing the Framer's consideration to make the document democratic to receive an affirmative vote [though Amar's arguments that the framers were particularly populist and that the republic was the same as democracy in their eyes are not compelling arguments]). However, the document was also flawed by the 3/5 clause, which gave recognition to slavery and extra power to the slave states by increasing their power in Congress and in presidential elections and therefore indirectly on judicial appointments. Amar argues controversially that the constitution structurally does not allow secession (being based on the model of the Union between Scotland and England) and that the Civil War fundamentally changed the second amendment (during the revolution, the threat was seen as the central government [hence the need for state militias to be armed], but in the antebellum era with its disenfranchisement, gag rules and revolt against a fairly elected president, the states had become the threats to be fixed by the federal government [and with it, the evolution of the second amendment an individual right]). Amar discusses the interesting implications of the age requirement of officials, which prevented dynasties of favored sons, and residency requirement which prevented the practice of rotten boroughs. There is also somewhat randomly, a refutation of Ackerman's theory of extra-consitutional "constitutional moments", particularly applied to the 14th amendment. Amar also goes through the history of the amendments, discussing their historical context and implications (an interesting one is the innovation of limiting when an amendment can take effect, seemingly allowing modifications to article 5 procedures). There's many other fascinating and controversial arguments made in the rest of the book (from the strange ratification of the 27th amendment [proposed by the first congress but only ratified in 1992 after a letter writing campaign from a college student] to the 12th amendment modifying elections in light of the realities of political parties). A good reference book to keep around for its interesting tidbits alone. A major weakness of the book is that it's filled with rather idiosyncratic views of Amar on the constitution (though to be fair he indicates the originality of some of these views in the postscript). Some of these views (repetitive from Unwritten Constitution) include the idea that the suffrage amendment on its face entitles women to sit on the jury (apparently an idea derived from certain legislative history from the adoption of the 14th amendment) , since juries vote, the idea that federal statutes always override treaties (rather than later in time, because of the order they are mentioned in the Constitution), and the view that each branch was empowered to decide on the constitutionality of various laws not the supreme court alone (though this view seems historically supported by the scholarship of Gordon Wood). Amar argues that structurally, the constitution gives the executive expansive powers to deal with emergencies and unforeseeable circumstances, and that the list of executive powers is demonstrative, not exhaustive. While not all of these completely unrooted in scholarship or history, they are considered heterodox by doctrine and an unwary reader is not warned of that fact. Overall, a good read for someone interested in the somewhat arcane historical background of the Constitution than current legal practice.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex Orr

    Technically speaking, I left this one unfinished, or, rather, skimmed the last 150 pages or so. I think my negative opinion of the book really comes down to expecting it to be something it was not, and the fact that the writing is really, really dry. This book is a very detailed overview of the background to the Constitution, but doesn't say very much about the document or amendments after their ratification. So, for example, if you were looking for a book analyzing the relationship between the Technically speaking, I left this one unfinished, or, rather, skimmed the last 150 pages or so. I think my negative opinion of the book really comes down to expecting it to be something it was not, and the fact that the writing is really, really dry. This book is a very detailed overview of the background to the Constitution, but doesn't say very much about the document or amendments after their ratification. So, for example, if you were looking for a book analyzing the relationship between the somewhat limited scope of executive power as put forward in the Constitution and the broad powers it has acquired, you will not find it here. However, if you wanted to read a detailed account of how the Articles of Confederation, Great Britain, and all of the colonies conceived the role of the executive (and thus how they influenced Article 2) then this would be the book for you. To put it another way, this book is about the Constitution in relation to other constitutions circa 1787, it is NOT much of a history of the document since then, outside of the backgrounds behind the amendments, but even then, the focus is on the influences that led them to be added, and not really on interpretations since then. Obviously different people find different topics more interesting than others, but for me, the book came across as tedious and terribly boring.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jacob

    I've always been interested in the U.S. Constitution, and this book definitely delivers, often in brilliant detail, the history of that document. Some of the legalese is beyond me, and that's fine, because so much of the book is written with a hefty populist spirit, pointing out that the Constitution is not just a piece of parchment written 200+ years ago by some old dead white men, but an experiment in republican democracy that is both imperfect but strives to be better. Some of the best I've always been interested in the U.S. Constitution, and this book definitely delivers, often in brilliant detail, the history of that document. Some of the legalese is beyond me, and that's fine, because so much of the book is written with a hefty populist spirit, pointing out that the Constitution is not just a piece of parchment written 200+ years ago by some old dead white men, but an experiment in republican democracy that is both imperfect but strives to be better. Some of the best passages in this book are dedicated to the fixing, the amending, of the Constitution, giving rights to those who have been historically disenfranchised, specifically blacks and women. I came away from this book with a new hope in what America can achieve, though if it will, is another thing altogether. Perhaps we as a nation have gotten too far away from our basic building blocks, the words and spirit of this document that so many give lip service to but few if any read or truly try to understand.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joey

    America’s Constitution is a thoughtful, impressively detailed, reasonably concise, relatively accessible overview of the Constitution, its historical context, and its applicability. Although Amar intended this book to go beyond “general classroom textbooks about the Constitution . . . pitched at an average ninth grader,” I sense it may be a bit dense for casual readers. But for anyone with strong interest and at least a basic foundation in constitutional law, history, or politics, America’s America’s Constitution is a thoughtful, impressively detailed, reasonably concise, relatively accessible overview of the Constitution, its historical context, and its applicability. Although Amar intended this book to go beyond “general classroom textbooks about the Constitution . . . pitched at an average ninth grader,” I sense it may be a bit dense for casual readers. But for anyone with strong interest and at least a basic foundation in constitutional law, history, or politics, America’s Constitution is a trove of fascinating information and insights. For instance, did you know that, but for Article I, Section 2’s infamous three-fifths clause that awarded slave states additional congressional representation for their human property, John Adams would have won the election of 1800? Had the electoral college been apportioned on the basis of free population, Thomas Jefferson would have finished about four electoral votes behind Adams. Another fascinating consideration is that the United States actually got lucky with respect to the direction in which grew. The 1820 compromise of course divided the country into North and South at the Mason-Dixon Line, and we tend to conceive it inevitable that the U.S. would grow due west from the original colonies. Southern slavocrats, in fact, attempted to push the country’s growth south into Cuba and the slave-rich Caribbean. This scenario would have led to a much darker American history, as masses of new slaves would have – via the three-fifths clause – massively increased the South’s political clout in Congress. It seems doubtful that abolition could have come about had the U.S. curled south like a backwards comma instead of stretching west. Amar weaves a couple of central themes through America’s Constitution. In his view, the Constitution is more democratic than some scholars, who emphasize distinctions between democracies and republics and argue for an American republic, give it credit for. Second, Amar sees a constitution that, through amendment and practice, has evolved into a more national, federal document than the one we started with. Although Amar quite studiously avoids discussing constitutional developments’ implications on contemporary politics, I inferred through my reading that Amar’s underlying themes of democracy and nationalization would cut both ways in today’s political world. First, a constitution infused at its creation with fairly radical democratic content, and which amendment has only increasingly democratized, seems to militate against some of the opaqueness with which modern politics is undertaken. Pork-barrel pet projects, stuffed surreptitiously into sprawling, voluminous, jargon-laced omnibus legislation, clearly contradict the spirit, if not the letter, of constitutional provisions that provided, for instance, for open courts accessible to “We the People.” Shady machinations among business leaders, between public and private sectors, and among politicians equally violate the Constitution’s spirit. In this way, it seems that libertarians’ modern complaints about large, unresponsive, even secretive government stand on solid constitutional ground. But the Constitution’s increasingly national character cuts against some of today’s arguments from the right. The Founders unarguably crafted the document at the outset to carefully balance state power against federal, and they conscientiously guarded states’ prerogatives against federal encroachment. Rightist voices, frustrated with perceived government ineptitude and shrinking personal liberties, sometimes point to the Constitution’s original tilt toward the states to justify their position. But, to oversimplify, America’s antebellum era illuminated some of the grave violence states could do to the freedoms the Constitution restrained the federal government from infringing. The Reconstruction Amendments (XIII-XV) aimed to reign in wayward states by increasing federal authority. The Sixteenth Amendment enabled Congress to levy progressive income tax—in effect to redistribute wealth. Amendments extending (or securing) the vote for blacks, women, and youth democratized the process of selecting both state and federal officers; on the federal level, this helped “We the People” circumnavigate corrupt state regimes. Finally, even at its birth, the Constitution’s infamous Commerce Clause arguably provided Congress with broad power to address both economic and noneconomic issues “among the several States,” or, in other words, that spilled across state lines. If, in fact, the Constitution originally granted Congress broad authority over interstate commerce, and subsequent amendments have nationalized the Constitution, empowering the central government to some extent at the expense of the states, then the more extreme calls for the emasculation of the federal government run contrary to the Constitution’s current spirit, as well as constitutional practice. I’ve only touched a few issues that America’s Constitution treats. As Amar reminds readers in the postscript, constitutional history and analysis are forums for intense disagreement. Brilliant minds fail to agree on what the Constitution means and how it should apply. My main takeaway, I think, is that applying the Constitution to real-life issues is difficult. I tend to be wary of those who claim this or that presidential administration is acting illegally, contrary to the Constitution. Sure, President Bush may have stretched the document’s provisions. President Obama could arguably be doing the same thing. But any who excoriate modern executives on ambiguous constitutional bases must also levy the same criticism at Abe Lincoln, who suspended habeas corpus and (arguably) unconstitutionally acted before the duly elected Congress could convene in the early days of the Civil War. The upshot: it’s complicated. We should approach the Constitution’s meaning and proper application with humility and open minds.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Cary Giese

    I am not a lawyer, my credential to comment is limited to undergraduate political science and history majors. I also collect presidential biographies and read all the best biographies of the founders. This book is dense and yet so clearly written that lay readers can understand it. That is a major accomplishment given the complexity of the material. Major learnings for me: The rule that slave counted as 3/5 of a citizen for the purpose of establishing the number of congressional representatives I am not a lawyer, my credential to comment is limited to undergraduate political science and history majors. I also collect presidential biographies and read all the best biographies of the founders. This book is dense and yet so clearly written that lay readers can understand it. That is a major accomplishment given the complexity of the material. Major learnings for me: The rule that slave counted as 3/5 of a citizen for the purpose of establishing the number of congressional representatives and also Presidential electors meant that Virginia got more than its share of Presidents in the first years! The founders emphasis throughout on the preamble and its focus on “we the people” drove many of the policy decisions because the founders were concerned that “the people” would approve! This insight was completely new to me Until this Constitution property ownership had been a requirement for participation in government everywhere in the world. That requirement extended to voting! No longer true! Voting requirements defined by the Constitution became citizenship and voting age! And citizenship and voting was even extended to freed slaves! Slaves could not vote, nor could woman but they were defined as citizens! However, importantly, capital ownership(land/slaves) was eliminated as a voting requirement. All citizens “the people” became the sole focus of this new republican form of government; a world first! And, the Constitution made it clear that the republic would be a government of law as opposed to a government of “men” (i.e. monarchs)! The US Constitution is a populist document as a result, and a major reason for its survival. The founders decided to trust the people! The book is extremely well researched. It uses as resources the notes and records of all the debates in Philadelphia that occurred behind closed doors, the public Federalist and anti-Federalist papers, and the records of the debates during the approval processes at the state level. As the title suggest, the book is truly a biography, explaining how the Constitution’s life began and how it grew up! If you are interested in any particular constitutional article or amendment and want to understand more about it, you’ll find out about its genesis, the politics and the reason it survived to be included! This book is a great reference document! No question, you will understand our country’s founding better having read this book; and you’ll be very impressed with the founders! I recommend it!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michael Gormley

    A phenomenal in-depth primer on the Constitution. Amar provides key context to allow readers to understand the history behind the foundation of U.S. federal law. With detail on controversial parts of the Constitution ranging from the Electoral College to the Second Amendment, this book is important to any member of the American body politic who wants a nonpartisan, objective constitutional analysis. A must-read for any diligent citizen.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    This was not written for lawyers, but I found a good deal of interesting information within anyway. Amar is quite frank in discussing the limitations of the Constitution in the book, but in his related series of public lectures he instead focuses on the feel-good, high school civics class version of high school history. Read the book and skip the lectures.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Bernard M.

    A lawyerly, almost line-by-line, interpretation and explanation of the US Constitution, with an emphasis on its character as a living document. He does give some context and background information, but the focus is on the wording of the document itself and its overall structure. Seems to me a very good place to learn about the Constitution.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Mcquirk

    I enjoyed this book. I appreciated the author's attempt to combine history with politics to explain not just what happened during the creation process, but why it happened, and how the Founding Fathers addressed these issues.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    A comprehensive look back at the history of The Constitution and associated amendments, with references to supporting documents Federalist Papers, etc. Readable for even a legal neophyte (like myself).

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Burns

    Brilliant. This is one of those books that you will never forget; that will constitute a new way of thinking about government and USA political history. One of a kind!

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