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America's Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By Hardcover – September 11, 2012

4.5 out of 5 stars 46 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Washington Post
“In America’s Unwritten Constitution, Akhil Reed Amar aims high and has produced a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades.… [The book] is filled with thought-provoking material and fun vignettes, suitable for a wide audience…. Amar’s approach is refreshing…. Amar makes a creative case that America’s written Constitution and its unwritten Constitution, since the beginning of the nation, have fit snugly together to form a single, more perfect union.”

Wall Street Journal
“Akhil Reed Amar is a rarity: a progressive law professor who is unafraid of the text of the Constitution…. In his ambitious new book, America’s Unwritten Constitution, he examines the paradox of needing to go beyond the text in order to faithfully follow the text…. His is a ‘holistic’ interpretation, one that rejects reading passages or clauses of the text in isolation from the document as a whole. He is masterfully creative in finding overarching themes that tie the disparate clauses together in novel and sometimes counterintuitive ways…. A highly engaging and thought-provoking book.”

New York Times Book Review
“In America’s Unwritten Constitution, Akhil Reed Amar, a commendably unorthodox and, in some ways, iconoclastic constitutional scholar at Yale Law School, bucks dominant opinions on both sides of the political spectrum. He contends that the written Constitution points to an unwritten one, and he argues that we can interpret with both intellectual honesty and analytical rigor.”

Boston Globe
“The Constitution has been described as both binding law and aspirational treatise…. Akhil Amar, a Yale law professor and one of contemporary America’s most brilliant constitutional scholars, [suggests] in his latest, and best, book, America’s Unwritten Constitution, that the issue is not an ‘either-or’ question…. As a lawyer and constitutional rights activist, I cannot imagine how anybody who cares about the law, and justice, which are not always the same thing, could fail to place this important book at the very top of the must-read list. It’s a gem.”

America’s Unwritten Constitution is full of fascinating history, as well as novel and often persuasive analysis.... An ambitious book, and an impressive one. It tackles many of the most important and controversial issues in constitutional law. Amar’s arguments are uniformly informative and ingenious.... This book demonstrates with force and clarity that the relation between authoritative written texts of the past and conceptions and practices that have developed over time is a central concern not only of religious doctrine but also of secular law.”

The Federal Lawyer
“[An] ambitious work.... Amar’s great contribution is to relate some of the great thematic developments of constitutional history to the words of the Constitution itself.... America’s Unwritten Constitution is not a treatise intended to guide legal practitioners or political scientists. Its aim is the more majestic one of articulating some of the grand underlying themes of American constitutional law and grounding them in the constitutional text. It aspires to be what Thucydides called ‘a possession for all time,’ and it succeeds. Readers today, as well as those of future generations, will read it to their profit.”

Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School
“Akhil Amar’s splendid new book, America’s Unwritten Constitution, combines an unmatched eye for detail with a unique capacity for overarching perspective and masterfully elegant synthesis. It is a wonderfully readable companion to Amar’s unparalleled earlier volume, America’s Constitution: A Biography. Together, these two works convey as little else can the majesty and sweep of America’s constitutional project.”

Ken Starr, President of Baylor University; Solicitor General of the United States, 1989-1993; Independent Counsel, 1994-1999
“In America’s Unwritten Constitution, Professor Amar adds to his already masterful bibliography what will instantly become a classic examination of constitutional law. As the Constitution itself stood in need of a seminal biography, so too the vast and varied domain of our Nation’s constitutional law cried out for a guidebook. Professor Amar has now brilliantly provided both.” 

Richard Brookhiser, author of James Madison
“Akhil Amar brings the patience of a historian, the ardor of a lover, and (yes, sometimes) the panache of a conjurer to America’s unwritten Constitution. If you want to argue with him, you will have to summon all these qualities yourself. This is a serious and provocative book.”

Steven G. Calabresi, Class of 1940 Research Professor, Northwestern University School of Law; Co-Founder of the Federalist Society
“This book is brilliant, creative, ambitious, comprehensive, imaginative, and thought-provoking.  It is a must-read for anyone interested in Constitutional Law.” 

Nadine Strossen, Former President, American Civil Liberties Union; Professor, New York Law School
“This is an engrossing, epic work of enduring importance—not only a treasure trove for scholars of American law, history, and politics, but also an inspiring, empowering  guidebook for activists.  It compellingly demonstrates how to harness the Constitution’s full meaning in order to promote its thrilling vision of liberty and justice for all.  No matter what your prior knowledge of this field, and no matter what your ideological perspective, this magnificent book will enhance your understanding and appreciation of our cherished Constitution.  If I had to choose a single work to recommend to either my constitutional law students or my civil libertarian colleagues, this would be it.”

Kirkus Reviews
“[Amar lays] out his argument in case-by-case details that are scholarly and legalistic but always readable…. [An] ingenious mixture of history, legal anecdotes and hypothetical cases.”

Publishers Weekly
“Yale law professor Amar follows his highly regarded historical-textual analysis of America’s Constitution with a companion volume on the history, culture, and legal tenets of the ‘unwritten constitution,’ the traditions and precedents that inform constitutional interpretation…. Sophisticated readers will be rewarded for traveling with Amar as he covers a great deal of ground.”

“Deeply researched and carefully argued, this book is nothing less than a sophisticated and comprehensive theory of constitutional jurisprudence that resists being construed along narrow political lines. Indispensable for law students and scholars, this will also be enjoyed by general readers who are passionate about constitutional law.”

About the Author

Akhil Reed Amar is Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University, and periodically serves as a visiting professor at Harvard, Columbia, and Pepperdine Law Schools. Amar is the author of four books, including America’s Constitution, which won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association, and The Bill of Rights, which was awarded a Silver Gavel Certificate of Merit. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Senior Scholar at the National Constitution Center, Amar is often cited by the Supreme Court and is a frequent expert witness in Congressional hearings.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1st edition (September 11, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465029574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465029570
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #458,419 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I just received this book - two weeks before it is officially released. I'm not entirely sure how that is possible, but congratulations to Amazon for its efficiency.

As a Yale Law student, the temptation to buy this book was overwhelming. And it hasn't disappointed: as one would expect from Akhil Amar, the writing is lucid; the arguments are powerful (even when one might not entirely agree with them); and the level of scholarly detail astounding. I have no doubt that this book will take its place in the canon of Constitutional scholarship, and every law student, attorney, and judge should put this at the top of their reading list.

Amar is known for holding a few positions outside the mainstream, and this book is no exception. Like in America's Constitution: A Biography, readers will occasionally find, particularly near the end of a chapter, some claims that may lead them to raise an eyebrow. But even these deserve a careful read, and from time to time, the reader will be convinced. Even when they are not, hearing Amar's intelligent arguments will remind them of the necessity of not blindly following the mainstream and making one's mind up for oneself, based on all the evidence and logic.

Some arguments in this book are of enormous importance. Amar's call to remember the Common Law and revolutionary experience that colors the words used in the concise text of the Constitution serves as an important reminder to modern judges to avoid the temptation to construe language in a vacuum; like all forms of communication, it is vital to recall that the meaning of language is a product of social and historical context.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Like another reviewer here, I bought this Kindle book on the strength of Akhil Reed Amar's other book, "America's Constitution: A Biography." Er, no problem with the use of "America" in either of these titles. These two books really should be read sequentially, starting with Biography. In Biography, Reed goes word for word through the "terse text." In Unwritten, he shows how the various Constitutions -- implicit, lived, symbolic, etc. -- flesh out and strengthen the words of the document itself.

While reading this book I was mulling the thought of subtracting a star due to a tendency of the author to get a little too far down in the weeds. And then I came to Chapter 6, "Honoring the Icons: America's Symbolic Constitution." This chapter examines six texts -- no spoilers here but at least one of them will surprise you -- that illustrate not just the Constitution but what it means to be an American. Another part of this chapter -- on the three Supreme Court cases that deserve to be in the SCOTUS Hall of Shame (my words, not his) is similarly insightful. This chapter is worth being issued as a Kindle-single edition.

Akhil Reed Amar's writing throughout is lawyerly but elegant (check out the Look Inside feature to confirm). The book is written for a layperson, not a lawyer, with ample, clear definitions of important terms. Yes, Amar should be on the Supreme Court. Maybe he's been asked, but why would he give up a tenured gig at Yale to come down to Washington, even if a seat on the Supreme Court is tenured as well?

Buy both of these books and read them carefully. You will emerge with a greater understanding of the document and our society. And speaking of Biography, I've given my hard-copy version to a friend and replacing it with the Kindle version. Both books deserve re-reading.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In his follow up to America’s Constitution: A Biography, Professor Amar explores the vague parts of the Constitution and how it has worked in our history. As we know from our history, the Constitution itself is a framework for the government to work in. Much of what constitutes our working system of government was devised after the ratification of the Constitution and is at times like Professor Amar states, unwritten. He also used this book as the foundation text for a course on the Coursera MOOC platform in which he gave lectures on each chapter. The course and the book worked well together in presenting a view of America’s legal system which we often do not understand.

The book is a very good book although it is a bit of a dry read at times. Legal students will fare very well with the book as will graduate students or students studying legal history. I definitely would not assign this to first or second year undergraduates as a standalone work. For a course on the Constitution it would be useful when used in conjunction with its twin. The concepts of the unwritten Constitution can be difficult to perceive, but they definitely exist. This is where students will have some difficulty in developing an understanding.

Politically, the book seems to work its way down the middle. Amar makes no major against the grain stances against the Supreme Court and its rulings such as Citizen’s United, etc. He does address exclusionary evidence and how some majority opinions seem to have been correct, but used the wrong precedents in establishing the legality of them. He offers no wild-eyed sermons on modern political thought, but instead works within the confines of the established legal system and thought. I found that to be refreshing.
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