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America's Constitution: A Biography (2005)

af Akhil Reed Amar

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7271522,858 (4.21)16
A Yale Law School professor offers a thought-provoking analysis of the history and tenets of the U.S. Constitution, detailing the original intent of the creators of the document, answering questions about the text, and critically assessing the evolution of the Bill of Rights and all other amendments. 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.… (mere)

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Viser 1-5 af 14 (næste | vis alle)
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. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
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. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
This is a must read, especially with the debates that rage regarding how the constitution applies to a given social or political issue, The author describes each article and amendment within its historical and political context. You learn from each page. ( )
  dasam | Jun 21, 2018 |
Reads like a really dry law book. ( )
  HoldMyBook | Feb 11, 2018 |
If only this book were required reading in all government classes whether high school or college. Americans are woefully deficient in understanding their unique form of government. ( )
1 stem JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
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A Yale Law School professor offers a thought-provoking analysis of the history and tenets of the U.S. Constitution, detailing the original intent of the creators of the document, answering questions about the text, and critically assessing the evolution of the Bill of Rights and all other amendments. 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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