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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of America's Constitution: A Biography

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.

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