The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760–1840

Akhil Reed Amar. Basic, $40 (882p) ISBN 978-0-465-09635-0
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. (May)
Reviewed on : 03/05/2021
Release date: 05/04/2021
Genre: Nonfiction
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