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America's Constitution: A Biography [Hardcover]

by Akhil Reed Amar
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 13, 2005 1400062624 978-1400062621 First Edition
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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. You can read the U.S. Constitution, including its 27 amendments, in about a half-hour, but it takes decades of study to understand how this blueprint for our nation's government came into existence. Amar, a 20-year veteran of the Yale Law School faculty, has that understanding, steeped in the political history of the 1780s, when dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation led to a constitutional convention in Philadelphia, which produced a document of wonderful compression and balance creating an indissoluble union.Amar examines in turn each article of the Constitution, explaining how the framers drew on English models, existing state constitutions and other sources in structuring the three branches of the federal government and defining the relationship of the that government to the states.Amar takes on each of the amendments, from the original Bill of Rights to changes in the rules for presidential succession. The book squarely confronts America's involvement with slavery, which the original Constitution facilitated in ways the author carefully explains.Scholarly, reflective and brimming with ideas, this book is miles removed from an arid, academic exercise in textual analysis. Amar evokes the passions and tumult that marked the Constitution's birth and its subsequent revisions. Only rarely do you find a book that embodies scholarship at its most solid and invigorating; this is such a book.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Amar, a Yale Law School professor, approaches the Constitution with a perspective that is both accessible and unconventional. He gets into the formative process of our most revered doctrine of governance by placing it in the context of law, history, and political science. Yet he broadens his focus beyond the Philadelphia constitutional convention to include popular conversation and competing values. Amar views America's foundation as a corporate merger, reflecting 13 colonies with different legal charters and interests. He raises central questions: Was the constitutional process democratic? Was it pro-slavery? He explores the context of the subsequent amendments, initially the Bill of Rights, then those associated with the Reconstruction era through the civil rights era. Amar dares to incorporate contemporary concerns around the amendments that have often prodded us toward achieving our otherwise unrealized ideals. There is a fluidity to Amar's analysis that contrasts with those strict constructionists and those with vested interests in the original intent of our Constitution, as if such ground were sacred. Vernon Ford
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (September 13, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400062624
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400062621
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,096 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
104 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A holistic view of the Constitution October 31, 2005
Constitutional scholars are familiar with the quality and innovation of Amar's previous works and this brilliant new book will not disappoint. Of course, some will react negatively to the very title. By calling it a "biography," many scholars will immediately be hostile because it implies a "living" Constitution, which means "judicial activism." Amar uses biography because the Constitution is a living entity, and his account looks at its "birth" in 1787 through its maturation (i.e. amendments) up to the present. The sheer immensity of this project is overwhelming. Amar examines the meaning of nearly every provision of the Constitution. He looks at the document from a holistic perspective, seeking to incorporate the best elements of legal, historical, and political science scholarship in order to achieve a full representation of its meaning. While the length of this work is impossible to summarize in this short review, some things should be noted as particularly original. Amar highlights the interesting fact that the original Constitution was ratified in a more democratic and popular way then is commonly supposed; most states removed the suffrage limitations and allowed near universal (white) male suffrage. Another point of interest is the emphasis of geostrategic security and the related issue of unilateral succession, which Amar argues was not constitutionally permissive. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and I highly recommend this book. Amar's writing style is engaging and capable of understanding even by the layperson who does not have an obsession with the Constitution. For those, like myself, who are constitutionally obsessed, Amar presents refreshing and innovative approaches to many constitutional provisions, some of which modern scholars tend to ignore. Read more ›
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great intro to the constitution June 2, 2006
Amar explains in his postscript that his aim in writing this book was "to offer a comprehensive account of America's Constitution, introducing the reader both to the legal text (and its consequences) and to the political deeds that gave rise to that text." He has achieved this aim splendidly. This phrase-by-phrase guided tour through the document never fails to inform and provoke, whether or not one agrees with its author (and I don't always). It's also a very approachable book, in terms of both style and content. The knowledge base assumed here is considerable, but not forbidding: anybody with a good working knowledge of the Seven Articles and the better-known Amendments ought to be able to thread his way profitably through Amar's lucid and energetic narrative.

Amar considers himself a "textualist," which as far as I can tell amounts to a kind of principled "public-meaning" originalism of the kind advocated by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Robert Bork. His (very) close reading of the text is always informed by a knowledge of the range of plausible meanings available to 18th-century users of a given word or phrase, and generally (with some crucial exceptions--see below) by a comprehensive familiarity with the historical circumstances that led to the adoption of that word or phrase. At the same time, he stresses that the source of the Constitution's meaning must be located in the stated AND UNSTATED intentions of the document's authors AND RATIFIERS, to the extent that those intentions can be reliably recovered. In itself, this is an admirable approach; it avoids both the pitfalls of crude authorial-intent originalism (i.e., interpreting the Constitution by pretending to read James Madison's mind) and those of "loose constructionism" (i.e.
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68 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Remarkable Achievement September 18, 2005
Professor Amar advises U.S. Senators and the writers of "West Wing" on our constitution. He's also one of the most popular undergraduate professors at Yale. Thus I wasn't surprised that this biography of our Constitution was thoughtful and remarkable in its scope. What did surprise me was how easy it was to read and how fascinating it was on every page. This book should be required reading for Supreme Court Justices and high school American History teachers, and all sorts of folks in between.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The thematics of liberal originalism February 5, 2006
This is that rare book. Anyone interested in the history of the United States or it's government should read this book. Not necessarily because it settles anything but because it argues so well for positions that are not mainstream. You ignore Amar at the risk of your own ignorance.
Two things about the reading of this book. Read the Postscript both before and after the main text. This will greatly clarify
your understanding of Amar's purpose and methodology. Also, make sure to religiously read the footnotes. Much of the supporting data is to be therein as well as cogent outlines of many a scholarly debate.
Amar has two major overarching themes:
1. "...the Founder's Constitution was more democratic, more slavocratic and more geostrategically inspire than is generally recognized..." (p.471).
2. Amar focuses on the various acts of constitutional ratification and amendment as being maybe more important than the text itself.
His working of this last point is continually brilliant. For example, Amar focuses a lot on how Washington established many a precedent for the President. "This seemed particularly appropriate because the American people in 1787-1789 understood that the Constitutuion was designed for Washington, whose precedent-setting actions concretize its meaning..." (p. 479 but see also p.134)
Another example has been mentioned by some of the other reviewers but is worth repeating. Amar points out that the vote for the delegates to the ratification conventions in the various states were more inclusive than usual. The Founders recognized that the legitimacy of the Constitution rested on popular sovreignity. In their cover letter to Congress presenting the Constitution, they explicitely called for the ratification by convention.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Review
A little too much opinion and short on actual basics. I wanted to know more detail about the constitution, the amendments, and found myself buried in a overdose of author's views. Read more
Published 13 days ago by Ronald Gottlieb
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear and interesting
The book is clear and interesting for anyone who wants to start studying the US constitutional legal system. I love it!
Published 1 month ago by Tatiana Isabel
5.0 out of 5 stars fantastic baseline
Really great, detailed overview of the Constitution as a whole. Meticulously researched and presented as a narrative that invites the layman to enjoy the content and context of the... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Matthew Moss
4.0 out of 5 stars learning lots
I bought this to go with an on-line class taught by the author. Very engaging, good combination of narration and exposition.
Published 1 month ago by Hugh V. Hansen
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books about the Constitution
Dr. Amir offers a unique blend of history, law and political science for a fresh look at an old but feisty document. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Michael Mcguire
4.0 out of 5 stars Professor Amar does it again.
I bought this book for Professor Amar's online course as it was recommended reading.

A very clear history of the constitution and a great survey of its provisions.
Published 1 month ago by Natalie
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
The book was paired with a class taught by the author. Well written and informative. If you have forgot everything you learned in school, this is a very good place to start
Published 1 month ago by Carol Sexton
3.0 out of 5 stars An okay book.
This book was okay FOR ME. It is a very scholarly book, there's no question there. The author is a leading authority on the U.S. Constitution. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ed Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an excellent book, well written and easy to read.
I am a history buff and this book contains the stories behind, and about the writing of, our Constitution, which makes it an exciting read. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Martha B.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Great book thought provoking. Reading about the Constitution in the light of or history A must read for each American citizen
Published 2 months ago by Lynn Bradley
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