On the Shelf: Read About the American Constitution

As you can see from the title, I am running out of witty things to name these columns. In this case, if I think of something after this post goes live, I’ll come back and edit it, but in the meantime, here is the blunt, yet descriptive, indication of what this week’s list of books-I-pulled-from-my-bookshelf-concerning-a-specific-topic is all about.

A couple of years ago (oh, okay, more than a couple, but less than a decade), I was teaching a 101-level course to students in the criminal justice program at the local college branch on an Army base in Kuwait. The course dealt with the legal aspects of policing, and in one class, I mentioned to the students (all members of the US military), that my dad has July 4th tradition that I have adopted of reading in their entirety the texts of the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. One of the students looked at me and said: “For real? … You read the whole thing?” The question, “Why?” was very much implicit in their tone.

My reply touched mainly on the fact that, as uniformed servicemembers, we swear an oath to uphold the Constitution, and that, in my opinion, made it worth a re-read from time to time. I still hold this opinion. I mean, neither document is all that long, and some of it’s kind of boring, but the Constitution will never not be one of the most important documents to me. As US citizens, we are the government – and my ideal view of a country is one in which every citizen is enabled and enfranchised when it comes to participation, whatever participation looks like. (Maybe that’s an idea for a future On the Shelf – dust off all those political participation texts from my Masters degree in political communication…) Did I also mention that I think VOTING is super important? Yes. Yes, I do.

Anyway, if you’re reading this and thinking, huh, it has been quite a while since I read the US Constitution in its entirety, then don’t worry! Just go here and you can read the whole Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and all Amendments. When you’re done checking it out, come on back, because I have a list of three books that may be of help in understanding the Constitution, as well as the context against which it was developed and signed.

America’s Constitution: A Biography
Amar, Akhil Reed. America’s Constitution: A Biography, Random House, NY, 2006.

This book is the most powerful, thorough, and accessible exegesis of the Constitution that I have found. The subtitle describes it as a “biography,” and that is exactly what it is–a document that leads the reader through each portion of the document, from conception to inception to current interpretation. Along the way, Amar discusses the conversations and debates that occurred at and around the Continental Congresses and the newspapers and pamphlets, the final wording, and then how that section has come to be interpreted through case law up to the modern-day. There is a meticulously referenced copy of the Constitution in its entirety, with page numbers in the margins at each section for easy reference as one reads through. The endnotes and index are fantastic, and there is a short section of frequently cited works, although not as extensive a bibliography as one might expect. To be fair, however, this is a lengthy tome, and the notes include a number of references for future reading. If you are going to pick one book to do a deep dive into the document that is the foundation of the USA, this is the book you want to pick up.

The Bill of Rights
Amar, Akhil Reed. The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1998.

I have a terrible confession to make. This book is on my shelf. My to-be-read (TBR) shelf. As such, I’m not necessarily going to speak of the experience reading it, but rather, why it’s on there. As you can see from the description of the previous book, Akhil Reed Amar knows his constitutional scholarship. After finishing America’s Constitution: A Biography, I wanted to keep reading. Although Amar does include the entire Constitution in the latter volume, this book offers the opportunity to do a deep dive into the Amendments making up the Bill of Rights. As in the previous volume, he lays out the methodology he used to explore the topic, and examines the Bill from the context of its writing and its place in the Constitution and subsequent case law. I recently picked it up off my TBR shelf and started reading it (which spurred the selection for this week’s OTS), and it’s a fascinating book.

Infamous Scribblers
Burns, Eric. Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, PublicAffairs, New York, 2006.

This may seem like an odd book to add to this list. And indeed, it maybe pop up later should I decide to do an On the Shelf of First Amendment reading, or early American history reading. (For this selection, I recommend Part III: The Tumult of Peace, Chapters Thirteen to Sixteen.) And yet, this book tells of an aspect of history that maintains its relevance until today–that of the relationship of the press to the government and to the people who make up the citizens of that government. There is a lot of telling and relevant history, all conveyed in fine, narrative nonfiction style, that does not refrain from spilling all the tea on the cast of founding characters. This section describes the public debate surrounding the Constitutional Conventions and how it played out in the essays and articles published by the men involved in its creation. That this book is first and foremost a history of journalism, and yet should provide so keen a perspective on the history of the founding of the Republic, should perhaps provide the modern reader some reflection on the importance of the press, and what our current times may look like to future historians as they peruse the articles and Op-Eds written today.

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