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A Biography

by Akhil Reed Amar

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 2005
ISBN: 1-4000-6262-4
Publisher: Random House

A needed explication of a document that all Americans should know—but that few have ever read.

Many professors don’t assign the Constitution itself in courses in constitutional law. “The running joke,” writes Amar (Law/Yale Univ.; The Bill of Rights, 1998), “is that reading the thing would only confuse students.” There is reason to think so, for the Constitution has its confusions and contradictions. Yet, as Amar fluently demonstrates, its flaws are its virtues, for the Constitution does work like no other document of its time: It encodes the self-government of a “continental” nation and people and provides an elaborate system of checks and balances not only of the three branches of federal government, but also of the federal government as against the governments of the various states. In the second matter, Amar notes that the states entered the constitutional convention as sovereign entities but ceased to be so after ratification, for the idea that they comprised “a more perfect union” eliminated the possibilities of the unilateralism contained in the Articles of Confederation. The author charts the arguments advanced by federalists and antifederalists on such philisophical issues as the nature of the presidency and the presumed ability of the federal government to end slavery. The ultimate genius of the document, he suggests, has been its ability to embrace both the will of the state and the will of the people—the “we the people” who demanded more jury safeguards, for instance, than the original Article III offered, and the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, and progressive taxation. Among amendments to consider now, he remarks, is a recasting of the rules of succession: “Much as Americans responded to the tragedy of November 22, 1963 by revising the Constitution’s succession system, so Americans in the wake of September 11, 2001 have good reason to rethink our statutory succession system before tragedy strikes again.”

Data-rich, but seldom ponderous.