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 criticizes Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Calhoun, and Jackson, among other leading politicians, and stakes out a distinctive position among the Constitution’s many interpreters. This alone justifies the book ... The work, with its comprehensive scope, incisive analysis, and storyteller’s gifts, is frequently provocative and sweeping in its simultaneous grasp of politics and law. The great strength of The Words That Made Us is to place constitutional history in a geostrategic context ... Amar persuasively documents that the Americanization of the Colonies was enabled by the newspapers of the day, which helped nationalize dissent ... Amar’s distinctive contribution in this book is to recognize how corrosive the Three-Fifths compromise proved to be ... Amar’s use of biography and narrative history brings these stories to life. For Amar at his best, context is the key to retelling his account of the American constitutional conversation ... In one instance, Amar’s contextualism fails him. Amar’s discussion of President Jackson’s 1832 veto of the Act to Renew the Charter of the Second Bank of the United States is narrow and legalistic.
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.
... the rarest of things — a constitutional romance. Amar, an eminent professor of law and political science at Yale, has great affection for his subject as a text that is worthy of loving engagement by scholars and the public at large ... Amar’s story is more celebratory, but the strength of his argument depends on whether his central metaphor of a conversation accurately captures what is at stake in this book ... Amar delivers brilliant chestnuts of interpretation ... Amar is fair-minded in assessing the deficits of the new document, noting for instance that the three-fifths clause buttressed enslavers’ power in the House and enabled Jefferson and a succession of enslavers to win the presidency on the backs of the enslaved ... Amar loves his subjects — perhaps a bit too much ... Amar freely confesses that he hopes his book will take its place alongside classic works by historians such as George Bancroft, Charles Beard and Gordon Wood. It is too early to make such predictions, but one should note that these classic authors attained their influence and staying power in part by capturing something that characterized their era, as well as something less timebound. In a moment that has produced profound debates on such topics as America’s place in a larger world and its racial, ethnic and religious composition, it is open to question whether a book that traverses, often brilliantly, such a delimited range of conversation can capture what was truly at stake for Americans of the founding generation, as well as for ourselves.