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108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A holistic view of the Constitution
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...
Published on October 31, 2005 by R. Price

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45 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For lawyers and scholars only
America's Constitution follows the US Constitution, from the soaring brilliance of the preamble, through article 7 and each of the amendments. Amar describes in depth the historical and political background of each section and explains what the drafters had intended, why it was written with the particular words and expressions that were used, and the intended and...
Published on August 27, 2006 by D. C. Palter


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108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A holistic view of the Constitution, October 31, 2005
By 
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
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.

I was pleased to see that Amar noted in his postscript certain limitations to his study that I became concerned of during my reading. First, the meaning he describes is his own opinion on the issue, and is often surprisingly tentative in its conclusion. This book is not constitutional gospel; it is intended to stir debate and critical disagreement, of which there are multiple assertions capable of attack; for example, I find his argument that "commerce" was understood to encompass interactions not limited to economics unconvincing. Second, and more important, is his admission that his account emphasizes the written constitution and largely ignores the unwritten (or, more properly, unenacted) portions of our constitution, such as judicial interpretation, foundational statutes, and norms and practices of our system. I sincerely hope that someone, perhaps even Amar, takes up his call for another book on this unwritten aspect of our constitutional tradition.
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great intro to the constitution, June 2, 2006
By 
Jon Bornholdt (Schweinfurt Germany) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
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., interpreting the Constitution to mean anything we can plausibly strong-arm the text into saying), and we feel we are in the presence of an honest and well-informed guide whose ideological commitments take a back seat to his desire to share what he knows. It's also refreshing to encounter a politically liberal philosopher of law who unabashedly cares about literal meaning and authors' and ratifiers' intent--thus giving the lie to the silly claim that interpretive philosophy is a mere function of political orientation. The devil is in the details, however, and Amar has his share of hits and misses. I'll give one example of each.

The virtues of Amar's textualism are very much in evidence in his analysis of the Preamble. Contrasting the ratification process of the Articles of Confederation with that of the Constitution, Amar persuasively argues not only that the Union formed under the Constitution was legally indissoluble by unilateral secession, but that it was so understood by its authors and ratifiers. He secures this result by a close reading of the phrase "more perfect union": the proposal of such a union, Amar demonstrates, was based at least in part on the legal (and legally indissoluble) union of England and Scotland in 1707. Moreover, as Amar reminds us, it was widely agreed by Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike that the new government would be impossible to back out of: for the Feds this was, if anything, an advantage (albeit one to keep quiet about), while for Anti-Feds it was deplorable and dangerous. A nice feature of this analysis is Amar's reading of the Feds' relative silence on the issue of secession: had it been generally understood that unilateral secession would remain as a sovereign right of states under the new Constitution, the Feds would certainly have stressed the fact in order to reassure and win over their opponents. They didn't. All of this--the historical background of the union of Scotland and England, the explicit pronouncements of the participants in the great debate on ratification, and the "roaring silence" of the Federalists on the issue of unilateral secession--is used to give dispositive content to a phrase normally dismissed as a rhetorical flourish. (To be sure, the Court itself appealed to the phrase "more perfect union" in Texas v. White, its 1869 decision disallowing secession; but the reasoning in Texas is tortuous and unpersuasive, ascribing a weirdly persisting occult validity to the Articles of Confederation except as explicitly overridden by the Constitution. Amar's account is much cleaner and more intuitive.)

Now for an example of Amar's occasional tendency to privilege dictionary definitions over plausible, contextually determined, and historically informed readings. Amar makes much of the fact that the word "commerce" had at the Founding, and retains today, a range of meanings that go beyond simply "trade": the word could also be used to mean "all forms of intercourse in the affairs of life, whether or not narrowly economic or mediated by explicit markets" (p. 107). Thus, in his opinion, the Commerce Clause has been too narrowly construed in modern jurisprudence; a return to the Gibbons v. Ogden reading, which Amar evidently prefers on ideological grounds, might be bolstered by the assumption that the Framers intended the broadest possible construal of the word "commerce" in the first place. This is wildly implausible. A glance at Article 1, Section 8, shows a list of specific powers granted to Congress; the commerce power is sandwiched between the power to "borrow money on the credit of the United States" and the power to "establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization." Clearly, a general grant of power to regulate "all forms of intercourse in the affairs of life," etc., has no place on such a list. Madison's remarks in Federalists 42 and 45 are surely also relevant here: in both numbers, Publius treats "commerce" as a mere synonym for "trade." Nor is this an idiosyncratic reading; to the best of my knowledge, it's how the clause was read by all sides in the ratification debate. The moral here is that "public meaning" isn't enough to license an interpretation: some "live" meanings of words are simply disallowed by context. (In the Commerce Clause, for example, "Indian Tribes" doesn't mean tribes in India.) I'm no kind of expert in this field, but it certainly strikes me as more plausible to ascribe the broadenings and narrowings of interpretive approaches to Congress's "power. . .to regulate commerce" to fluctuations in the scope and authority the Court has chosen to read into the "necessary and proper" clause. In other words, what's been going on here for the better part of two centuries is a debate not over the meaning of "commerce," but of "power" and "regulate."

There is immensely more to this book than just the above two arguments, of course: I selected them merely to illustrate the kind of analysis Amar is engaging in here, and the degree of focus and care required both to appreciate and to criticize this kind of work. For the rest, I find Amar's focus on the Reconstruction Amendments as the keystone of the retooled Constitution to be absolutely on target (though at the end of the day I don't see as much difference as he does between his own approach to the legitimacy of Amendments 13 and 14 and Bruce Ackerman's approach), and his defense of the Incorporation Doctrine about as convincing as any I've read. And there's much, much more--fascinating analyses of the long-term effects of the 12th and 22nd Amendments, speculations about amendment paradoxes (I'm a sucker for these), a disquieting discussion of the possibly unconstitutional and unworkable legal machinery governing presidential succession, and on and on.
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69 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Remarkable Achievement, September 18, 2005
By 
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
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
By 
greg taylor (Portland, Oregon United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
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 would...help 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. The people of the states had copies of the Constitution to study and discuss before the election and the election was only about the delegates to be selected for the conventions. "A vote for convention delegates thus approximated a direct rederendum on the document..." (p.308).
Amar makes powerful arguments about his slavocratic thesis as well. He explores the full political effects of the three-fifths clause not just on the make-up of the Congress but on the electoral college (where overrepresentation of the South gave the Presidency to Jefferson in 1800). Like Sean Wilentz in his recent The Rise of Democracy, Amar also notes the way that the three-fifths clause was adapted by Southern states into their own constitutions were it warped their own internal politics in favor of the Slavocrats (most especially, South Carolina).
About the geostrategic implications of the Founder's Constitution, I refer the reader to my review of Max Edling's A Revolution in Favor of Government. Edling's book is a well-developed exploration of this thesis.
One more point about the Founding. Amar's discussion of the nationalistic implications of the Preamble are worth the price of the book alone. One of the reviewers below wonders how Amar can justify his ideas in light of several of the Federalist Papers. I suppose he would know if he had actually read Amar's book but let me try to help him out. The Federalist Papers were political arguments made in the middle of the debate about ratification in a very important state, New York. They do not so much represent accurately what the authors thought about the Constitution as what they thought would convince delegates to vote to accept it. For example, Madison both in the Constitutional Convention and later, in the First Congress when presenting his version of the Bill of Rights, tried to incorporate a national veto on state laws. Sounds pretty nationalistic to me.
Amar points out that during the ratification debates that no one thought to assert a right to secession. It simply was not part of the debates except in New York where such a proposal was explicitely voted down. Amar quotes a letter to Hamilton from Madison where Madison explicitely denied the right to even conditional secession and noted that the Constitution had "been so adopted by the other States". (p. 38 of Amar and the July 20,1788 letter of Madison to Hamilton in 11:189 of Madison's Papers). If the States were understood to be unable to unilaterally withdraw, then they were understood to have lost a great measure of their sovereignity.
Amar's discussion of everything after the Founding is equally rich. He feels, as I do, that it is this subsequent history that is the glory of our Constitutional history. He discusses every amendment and its origins. His overarching theme for this part of the story is the expansion of democracy. Whether it is the Reconstruction Amendments or the various amendments at the turn of the century that mandated the popular elections of Senators, the progressive income tax and women's vote, to Amar it is all about expanding the power of the American people to control their government.
One other point and one criticism and then I will shut the heck up.
One of the best points that Amar makes throughout his book is that Constitutional interpretation does not just belong to the Supreme Court. The President (unfortunately for us at this time) has to act on the basis of how (s)he understands the document as does Congress (see the writings of David P. Currie).
But several times, the people themselves have worked to overturn bad Supreme Court rulings (the progressive income tax and, of course, the anti-abortion movement). Amar is very clear about this. It is ours to interpret and put into effect.
My one criticism of Amar, however, is an important one. Amar insists that constitutional interpretation is open-ended but I do feel his history of that early interpretation is one-sided.
Read his footnotes carefully. He relies extensively on Joseph Story, on an essay by Tench Coxe and on Noal Webster, solid Federalists all. While he is very well versed in Elliot's Debates and Farrand's Records, I do not get the feeling that he has the feel for the Anti-Federalists as does,say, Saul Cornell. Later writers like John Taylor, St. George Tucker and that miscreant (IMHO) Calhoun are nowhere to be seen.
As I said, I feel this is an important flaw but it is far from a fatal one. I stand by my opening. If you have suffered through this entire review, you simply must read Amar's book. I plan to use it as a reference source and to reread it again in five years. I know I will learn as much from the second reading as from the first. For the scholarship and the careful thought that goes into presenting his thoughts on what is our Foundational document, Amar is a national treasure.
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45 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars For lawyers and scholars only, August 27, 2006
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
America's Constitution follows the US Constitution, from the soaring brilliance of the preamble, through article 7 and each of the amendments. Amar describes in depth the historical and political background of each section and explains what the drafters had intended, why it was written with the particular words and expressions that were used, and the intended and unintended consequences of the choices made by the framers.

While without a doubt a worthy book, and one every American ought to read, I doubt most non-lawyers or academics can get through the dense prose. Though Amar makes a valiant effort to avoid legal jargon and shorthand, the book was clearly written by a legal scholar and often debates or rebukes contentions by other legal scholars of which the general public, including myself, are mostly ignorant. Prior familiarity with Publius is a prerequisite.

What I had hoped for from the description of this book was a David McCulloch-style history of the writing of the Constitution, explaining the 18th century text in 21st century terms. Instead, Amar often seems to imitate the style of the 18th century framers. To illustrate, here is a representative sentence taken at semi-random from near the beginning: "The conspicuous complementarily of these two sentences suggests that they might sensibly have been placed side by side, but the Philadelphia architects preferred instead to erect them at opposite ends of the grand edifice so that both the document's front portal and rear portico would project the message of popular sovereignty, American style."

This is actually a quite erudite sentence, for which the author is likely to have been rightly proud to have penned. But 500 pages of this makes for arduous reading, and where one simple sentence could explain his point, Amar has a habit of writing 2-3 paragraphs. I fell asleep and gave up on the book countless times before finally making through to the end.

For lawyers and others who are already at least somewhat familiar with Publius, this book is a detailed and even-handed explanation of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. For the general public, it is worth noting that all of the blurbs of praise on the back are from other law professors.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, but it's a historical snapshot, not a biography..., December 20, 2006
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
This is an excellent history of the Constitution as it was drafted. It places each provision within its historical context, drawing heavily on the history of English common law, the law of the pre-revolutionary colonies, and the constitutions of the several states prior to the "Miracle at Philadelphia." If you are interested in these things, then this is a fantastic read.

The problem is that this book is not really relevant to any of today's constitutional issues. It's a positive historical account of the drafting, NOT a normative critique of subsequent constitutional jurisprudence. Even "originalists" will find it hard to apply Amar's insights to modern con law.

Amar's theses are admittingly interesting. Among them are a) that jury power was much more important in the minds of the drafters than it is to us today, b) that slavery was virtually enshrined in the Constitution, by virtue of its structure, c) that the Fourth Amendment was not meant to be enforced by judges (via the exclusionary rule), but instead by grand juries (by refusing to indict) and petit juries (by nullifying unpopular laws and awarding damages to victims of illegal searches and seizures).

But what are we to do with these insights? Some have suggested that the exclusionary rule might be on the way out with the current Supreme Court, but there seems little hope that jury power (waning for 30 years) might be suddenly revived by a hard look at the Constitution. Slavery is obviously gone, never to return, and nobody today really cares what the Founders said about it.

For good or ill, the Constitution in force today is 99% an artifact of the post-Civil War Amendments and the Supreme Court decisions of the 20th Century. Together, these are "America's Constitution" and neither is very well covered by this book. Today, the Founders and the Convention are really of academic interest only.

Personally, it was my hope in approaching this book that Amar's authoritative take on the Constitution would resolve for me my questions about contemporary constitutional jurisprudence. In particular, I have always hoped that a properly "originalist" view of the Constitution would demonstrate it to be a much more radical document than today's self-proclaimed "originalists" believe. I would like to have my cake (original intent) and eat it too (i.e. enjoy the broad rights protected by the 20th Century Constituion).

This book was sold to me as the definitive case that the original Constitution was a firmly "liberal" document (in the 18th Cen. sense). And, indeed, Amar's insights support this interpretation, up to a point. Amar demonstrates that the Constitution as drafted was indeed a very populist document. And he does very effectively dismantle the old (progressive/Marxist) saw that the Constitution was a mere tool of propertied interests.

But the problem is that, while Amar's positive account of the history of Constitution is masterful, it has no obvious normative implications. His observations are just too far removed from the present day to have much bearing on our current constitutional aporias. His arguments could really be marshalled on either side of the contemporary debate, and he seems to have no serious commitments to either camp.

So, if you want to learn history this is an excellent book, but just don't anticipate any strong cocktail-party conversation leverage to come out of it.
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83 of 109 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An in-depth study of the constitution and how it should be interpreted in contemporary society, September 22, 2005
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
While President Bush spent the month of August at his Crawford, Texas ranch, various newspaper accounts mused over the list of books that were part of the President's summer reading. Several times during Mr. Bush's summer sojourn, he spoke to Americans and Iraqis alike regarding the ongoing debate and negotiations over the new Iraqi constitution. One wishes that the President had received an advance copy of Akhil Reed Amar's AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION to include on his summer reading list. At this critical time for the fledgling nation of Iraq, as well as for American citizens, the President would have been well served to consider the message of this exhaustive clause-by-clause analysis of one of the most important documents of world history. Indeed, as the Iraqis struggle with the creation of their constitution, the President might consider sending a copy of AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION to each member of the Iraqi Parliament.

Since 1985, Professor Amar has served as a constitutional law scholar on the faculty of Yale Law School. In 1998 he published THE BILL OF RIGHTS: Creation and Reconstruction, an important and provocative contribution to constitutional doctrine and interpretation. AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION continues the discussion that has come to the fore in American jurisprudential debate --- what does the constitution say and how should we interpret its meaning in contemporary society? As our nation prepares to add two new justices to the Supreme Court, the magnitude of this debate and its impact on our nation's future cannot be underestimated by any citizen.

Not counting amendments, the U.S. Constitution has 4,400 words. It is the oldest and shortest constitution in the world. Considering that brevity, it may be difficult for readers to contemplate nearly 500 pages of line-by-line analysis of each provision of the Constitution. But Professor Amar's thorough and detailed analysis of the Constitution is so well-written and true to a fundamental theoretical argument that readers will be hard pressed to find any superfluous writing in this remarkable work of legal and historical scholarship.

Space limitations make a detailed discussion of Amar's constitutional theology (his first chapter is titled "In the Beginning") impossible. The overriding argument of AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION is that certain key themes representing basic commitments of the founding fathers tie the Constitution together. Before discussing that argument it is crucial to consider Amar's discussion of important lessons gleaned from the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. That discussion is significant because of the important lessons it provides to the modern world where new nations such as Iraq struggle to write a document to provide for the growth of a fledgling nation.

Regardless of one's political views on the war in Iraq, only imprudent individuals would view the ongoing drafting of a Constitution for that nation without reference to historical context. Professor Amar cogently provides that context for the Constitution of 1787 and in so doing offers important lessons for the current struggle to create a government in Iraq. In 1787 the drafters of our Constitution had little actual experience in democracy. There were few such governments in the world. Indeed, democratic principles filtered up from the various individual states of the union whose democratic experience was very limited. Anyone knowledgeable in Middle Eastern history cannot deny that Iraqis have very little in the way of a democratic template to assist them in creating a constitution.

Equally significant to the drafting of the Constitution were the circumstances behind the birth of the American nation. The Declaration of Independence established the right of people to escape the evils of tyrannical rule. By 1787 the nation had existed for some years under the Articles of Confederation. The new Constitution required the drafters to address the right of citizens to change their form of government in a peaceful fashion. By that process the Constitution gave citizens of the United States far more democracy than any nation had ever experienced. Today in Iraq, a nation long governed by tyranny has seen its government removed not by revolution but by an outside force. How a new nation is born will have substantial influence in how it chooses to govern itself. As the world views the Iraqi struggle with constitutional democracy, these concerns cannot be ignored.

AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION was not written as a primer on how Iraq should draft a constitution. Professor Amar certainly did not intend that his book would be limited to offering insight into the difficulties Iraqis face in drafting a constitution. While that historical insight is significant, equally noteworthy is what AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION offers readers by way of discussion about America's past, present and future in the area of constitutional jurisprudence.

As America prepares to welcome two new Justices to the Supreme Court, the ongoing debate over constitutional interpretation grows more strident. Should the original intent of the founders guide constitutional interpretation, or is the Constitution a living document that was intended to confront contemporary issues based upon more contemporary legal doctrine? Professor Amar finds merit in both arguments but also believes that there is still much room in the Constitution for interpretation between the lines that the founding fathers deliberately kept sparse.

As he wrote AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION, Amar had no way of knowing how important his book would be to contemporary issues in the world and in our nation. Perhaps that is the greatest tribute one can pay to this extraordinary work. Even without the current effort in Iraq to create a constitution and the current vacancies on our Supreme Court, this would be an important book. Contemporary events make it a book that demands to be read in order to promote intelligent discussion of critical issues for our nation and the world.

--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Among Professor Amar's best work, February 27, 2006
By 
J. Gunter (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: America's Constitution: A Biography (Hardcover)
I have been reading Professor Amar's work since before his previous ode to the Constitutional text, "The Bill of Rights." I always find it insightful, but as a prescription for constitutional interpretation, I agree with the common criticism that it demands too much of the interpreter. Some of Amar's previous work envisions judges as highly trained historians who can search out the true original meaning of the Constitution in a more nuanced way than proponents of he "originalist" school of interpretation. Amar himself has characterized this in some places as a search for constitutional "first principles."

I am pleased to report that this book provides an excellent grounding in such first principles but avoids much argument about modern constitutional interpretation -- in other words, it has the best qualities of Amar's prior work without some of its pitfalls. Amar's main points are that the Constitution is more radically democratic than is usually believed, but also that it is more pro-slavery than is usually admitted. His remarkably close reading of the text, and his use of historical evidence, are the main support for these points. He avoids arguments from legal doctrine. Although his discussion may by extension shed light on modern legal questions, that is not Amar's focus. As a result, some of the key legal debates over modern constitutional interpretation -- for example, the scope of the Commerce Clause or the contours of the First Amendment -- are not treated in depth except as outgrowths of a particular historical mood and moment.

My only criticism of the book is that it seeks to be too systematic in addressing each clause of the Constitution. Amar does well at pulling his main themes through each of the clauses he considers, but when it is time for a textual detour, the theme can be lost until the next opportunity to present it. Perhaps a more engaging format would be through a series of questions such as, "How democratic is the Constitution?" Amar certainly shows in this book that he can discuss almost the entire text through the use of only a few such organizing themes.

This is not a book to read if you are looking for an originalist justification for modern constitutional interpretations. It is, however, a highly informative and interesting exploration of the Constitution's historical context. Reading it deepened my understanding of the Constitution and my respect for the achievement of its framers. I would recommend it for anyone with an interest in American history or constitutional law.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant, January 5, 2007
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this may sound like an unusual confession, but, i found it very difficult to put this book down. amar does an excellent job of helping us understand the history and political factors prevalent in the drafting and ratification of the constitution and amendments. he accomplishes the task of helping us to better understand some of the thinking of the days, by the drafters and american people. he writes in a clear style, intriguing the reader. while i am in no way a constitutional law expert, i can say that he probably did get all of his facts accurate - he only had 3 typos throughout the entire book (that i could identify). given the millions of pages of documents available to the expert on u.s. constitutional law and history, amar synthesizes the material brilliantly. i'm ashamed, although frankly grateful, that i was able to delight in reading this great work for such an affordable price and i would have found it an excellent resource at 3x the price! i wish that such a work were recommended reading for all of us.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rare gem, June 7, 2008
This is a remarkable book. The author's knowledge, insight, analysis and synthesis are amazing. There's too much to praise about it, so I'll just mention one aspect: Amar makes a very compelling case that from the beginning slavery was a disease spreading infection in our society and political system (aided by the 3/5 clause), increasingly corrupting our character and institutions until a terribly bloody breaking point was reached. The evil was partially righted, then amorality returned, allowing a viciousness to fester until another crisis led to new progress. But it remains that slavery and its legacy constitute the central national failure, which we still haven't nearly corrected. Most of the book is quite positive, and slavery's not the principal focus, but Amar's treatment of it is both convincing and unforgettable.
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America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar (Hardcover - September 13, 2005)
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