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Review of The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, by Jack Rakove

The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence
Jack Rakove, editor
Belknap Press, 2009

Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and his new book, the erudite and fascinating Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, came out in 2009. In 1997, most Americans would have picked up his new annotated guide to their founding documents and idly flipped to the sections on impeachment, perhaps wondering if it was really something that could result over a tryst with an intern, but not really caring either way. In, for instance, 2007, those same Americans (and perhaps many thousands of interested foreigners) would have frantically turned the pages to find out just exactly what the Constitution says about the President’s ability to ignore the law. Their trembling hands would have found Article One, Section Seven, which states in terms so clear as to command their assent that if a President objects to a bill or any part of a bill, he sends his objections to Congress, they deliberate on those objections, and if a majority still finds the bill worthy, it becomes law. Seeing this precise limit set to the President’s ability to do whatever the hell he wants, those same 2007 readers might have read Rakove’s typically engaging commentary with mounting anger:

Rather than veto legislation, some modern presidents – notably George W. Bush – have used presidential “signing statements” to express their intention not to enforce duly enacted provisions of legislation they find of doubtful constitutional validity. The requirement of this clause that presidential objections to legislation be formally registered in the congressional journals indicates that the framers would have looked askance at this practice. Indeed, many of them might well have been surprised to discover that a president who repeatedly used such statements to justify his fundamental obligation to faithfully execute duly enacted laws had not been impeached.

For a while there, in the interval between Rakove’s two books, it looked like an annotated guide to the U.S. Constitution would have been an exercise in bitter nostalgia, an autopsy rather than a celebration. Given how close things came, and given how dramatically they seem to have changed, Rakove’s book could be forgiven for gloating – but it never gloats. Rakove never postures in any way, even when we can suppose he has strong opinions. Take another contentious section of the Constitution, the much-abused Second Amendment which guarantees citizens the right to bear arms in a well-regulated state militia – Rakove comments:

In recent decades, the National Rifle Association and its supporters have waged a vigorous campaign to argue that the amendment was really meant to protect a personal right to keep arms for purposes of individual self-defense, and that the preamble to this clause did not limit its purpose to the militia alone. Though the historical evidence for that view is tenuous, in 2008 the Supreme Court sustained the individual-rights reading in its decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, overturning a broad prohibition on the private ownership of handguns in the nation’s capital. The Court reached this conclusion by largely ignoring the actual debates that led to the adoption of the amendment. Corresponding provisions in numerous state constitutions now assert an individual right to own and use firearms in language much more explicit than the much-disputed formula of 1789.

See the judicial restraint? See the absence of unhelpful terms like “redneck” or “gun nut” from the sober, evaluative prose? Wonderful!

In short, this is no sad encomium but instead an incredibly informative and ultimately thrilling tour of a still-living – not to say reborn – pair of documents that every American should know well (and most should know better than they do).