- Expected May 4, 2021
A history of the American Constitution's formative decades from a preeminent legal scholar
When the US Constitution won popular approval in 1788, it was the culmination of thirty years of passionate argument over the nature of government. But ratification hardly ended the conversation. For the next half century, ordinary Americans and statesmen alike continued to wrestle with weighty questions in the halls of government and in the pages of newspapers. Should the nation's borders be expanded? Should America allow slavery to spread westward? What rights should Indian nations hold? What was the proper role of the judicial branch?
In The Words that Made Us, Akhil Reed Amar unites history and law in a vivid narrative of the biggest constitutional questions early Americans confronted, and he expertly assesses the answers they offered. His account of the document's origins and consolidation is a guide for anyone seeking to properly understand America's Constitution today.
The U.S. collectively talked and wrote its way into being, according to this dazzling constitutional history. Yale law professor Reed (The Law of the Land) surveys America's evolving ideas about government and law via discussions of Paxton's Case, a 1761 Boston legal proceeding about search warrants that challenged parliamentary supremacy and started the colonies' ideological journey to independence; the 1787 Constitution, which knit sovereign states into a nation; and later constitutional crises over slavery. The author frames this history as a series of "conversations" among the founders in formal congresses and informal letter-writing circles, and among ordinary people through newspapers, pamphlets, cartoons, and elections. Against modern historians and legal scholars who condemn the constitutional order as a bulwark of elite dominion, Amar advances a neo-Federalist defense of it as a deeply democratic, if imperfect, blueprint for stable liberty. This is no arid exercise in legal theory: Amar ties searching constitutional analysis into a gripping narrative of war, popular tumults, political intrigue, and even fashion, highlighted by vivid profiles of statesmen. (Washington and Hamilton are the heroes of the story; Jefferson and Madison come away diminished.) The result is a fresh, invigorating take on America's founding that puts epic deliberation at the heart of democracy. Photos.