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Book Review: The Constitution – An Introduction

By (May 4, 2015) One Comment

The Constitution: An Introductionconstitution cover

by Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen

Basic Books, 2015

Father and son writing team of Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen state a deceptively simple goal for their book, The Consitution: An Introduction, new in an elegantly understated hardcover from Basic Books. They acknowledge that the history of the Constitution is “a lively story of ideas, disputes, and controversies, not a bland set of facts,” and they aim to to tell that story with a minimum of digression or obscurity in order to produce “a smart book but not a ponderous one.”

It’s much, much easier said than done, but somehow, they do it. Their book is everything that could be wanted from a 300-page history of a 200-year-old living document. Its parade of vital actors in that long story includes all the famous names like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin, as well as lesser-known but still key players such as Gouverneur Morris, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Edmund Randolph. The main body of the text is offset by sidebar mini-elaborations on pivotal Supreme Court cases and significant figures, from Myra Bradwell, America’s first woman lawyer, to Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first black Court justice, to William Howard Taft, the only person ever to have been both President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Their story naturally starts with the 55 men who attended the Constitutional Convention and decided in secret to exceed the specific mandate that had brought them all together, namely to revise the Articles of Confederation under which the States had been existing up until that point. Our authors quite rightly call this a second American Revolution – or, more precisely, a coup:

With only slight exaggeration, it can fairly be said that the adoption of the Constitution was an act of revolution – a dramatic break from the former legal order. Since declaring independence in 1776, the states of America had lacked a true, unified central government. The young nation had managed to declare and win its independence while loosely governed, at first by the Second Continental Congress – the assembly that had declared the independence of the American states – and then by a collective agreement known as the Articles of Confederation. But barely a decade after declaring independence, nearly all Americans agreed that the system under the Articles was failing.

Leaving aside how much that last line would have pleased Alexander Hamilton (he always enjoyed it when his personal opinion was equated with “nearly all Americans”), the Paulsens don’t even momentarily entertain the possibility that the main thing wrong with the Articles of Confederation was that it didn’t make enough money for those 55 men as would the new document they themselves would draft. Instead, they move straight on to discussing the single most remarkable invention of that Convention, the Bill of Rights:

The Bill of Rights is an impressive package of freedoms – practically a second Constitution setting forth new checks and balances and limitations on government power. Seen through the rearview mirror of history, moreover, the Bill of Rights can be understood as the completion of the constitutional project begun at Philadelphia in 1787. The adoption of these ten amendments was the final step in the broader process of constitution-making that began with the Constitutional Convention and ended with the ratification of the Bill of Rights by the last of the original states in 1791 – just a matter of months after the last state ratified the original Constitution.

Any history of the U.S. Constitution will necessarily be in large part also a history of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Court features prominently in this book, with latter chapters focusing on the “activist judges” of the present era. The Paulsens are scrupulously fair and objective throughout, but they’re also quite clear on the limitations of such activism:

The people of the United States are the ultimate masters of their Constitution, and the judges are bound by the texts that the people enact as part of the Constitution. A constitutional amendment thus trumps the Court’s interpretation; the Court has no legitimate power to disregard it.

The Constitution: An Introduction is much more than its name suggests; it’s much more comprehensive and scholarly and searching than any schoolroom introduction. It’s a first-rate work of history, something that any reader, student or constitutional scholar alike, will find fascinating.