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 narrative of the biggest constitutional questions early Americans confronted, and he expertly assesses the answers they offered.
Amar explores this territory brilliantly in The Words That Made Us, his deeply probing, highly readable study of “America’s constitutional conversation” from 1760 to 1840 ... For all of his insightful, and at times surprising, reflections on the founders, Amar is no exponent of the great man theory of history, at least when it comes to the key documents of early America. He strongly suggests that America as a whole — through its great national conversation — did more to draft the Declaration of Independence than Jefferson, and more to write the Constitution than Madison ... Excellent as The Words That Made Us is, there are ways it might have been even better. One involves class. Amar is appropriately attentive to the relative absence of Black Americans, women and Indians from the constitutional conversation (though he notes that their participation grew over time). It would have been good if he had said more about the exclusion of poor people, since so much of the discussion in this era was dominated by economic elites. At times, his radar for class issues seems to falter ... Also less than ideal is the book’s length. Amar declares that he wants students, pundits, politicians and the general citizenry to read his history and be improved by it. The chances of them doing so are reduced considerably by a three-digit page count that begins with an '8.' Portions could have been trimmed, or placed in an online appendix, in the interest of luring more people into the conversation ... enormously appealing — democratic, inclusive and rooted in an ethos of 'Come now, let us reason together' ... In addition to educating the Americans engaged in this discussion about their rich constitutional legacy, the book has a generous spirit that can be a much-needed balm in these troubled times.
Amar (law and political science, Yale Univ.; America’s Unwritten Constitution) blends biographical narratives with constitutional analysis to consider the American Revolution, the Confederation years, the Constitutional Convention, and the early national period ... Amar’s multifaceted treatment of the start of the U.S. constitutional project illustrates much about our historical memory and demonstrates that there is far more to the constitution than the document itself; all this complicates its understanding. Although sometimes dense in detail, Amar’s original work offers general readers an accessible and often entertaining narrative and lessons to glean from the founding document of the United States. The wide range of material covered in the book will give scholars plenty of interpretations to engage with.
A page-turning doorstop history of how early American courts and politicians interpreted the Constitution ... Amar—who points out that most historians lack training in law and most lawyers are not knowledgeable enough about history—delivers a fascinating, often jolting interpretation ... Brilliant insights into America’s founding document.