I have been very slowly working my way through America’s Constitution: A Biography for months. Part of what has been interesting is reading it along side books like The Half that Has Not Been Told and Reconstruction: America’s Unfished Revolution, Very Short Introduction to the President and theology books like the one I am currently reading on hermeneutics.
When I picked up America’s Constitution I was expecting something like either a Very Short Introduction series book, that describes the content with a bit of analysis or one of the Biography of Religious book series, like the one on Mere Christianity or The Book of Common Prayer or Letters and Papers from Prison that were as much about how the books were received as they are about the content of the book. Instead Akhil Reed Amar is using a mix of history, legal interpretation and analysis of the politics that created and amended the constitution. This well rounded perspective give both an overview of the content as well as helping to understand why we understand the constitution as we do.
I appreciate the well rounded analysis, but the organization occasionally left me a bit frustrated. The full constitution is in an appendix at the back. And I probably read it completely at least three times and sections of it many more times than that trying to get context for the discussion. I do wish there was more extended quotations of it in context of the book (or better linking to the sections as footnotes in the kindle edition.) In many ways it is exactly like theology books that reference passages of scripture without actually quoting them, so that you need to stop and go look them up in context to understand the discussion.
The most helpful parts of the book was the extended discussions throughout the book on role and politics of slavery in the development of the constitution and how the constitution was amended and understood. What the discussion of slavery shows is how much politics matters. The constitution is not just a document of ideals, but of practical realities. It is what was passed and approved. Amar also includes speculation of what could have been approved based on notes of discussions, the constitutions of states and the understanding of legal theories of the times with English Common Law system. What we have could have been different and that matters to how we understand the constitution.
There are some common themes that come up again and again. The role of who was included in suffrage is part of almost every discussion. Broadly, the amendments after the Bill of Rights either are fixing something that is broken (changing the way the Vice President is elected or limiting the number of terms for the President) or expanding suffrage (giving women the right to vote, changing the age of voting, etc.) It is also interesting how often expanding suffrage was connected to war.
The Constitution is revered for being a great legal system. But for all of the good of the Constitution, problems were identified almost immediately. At the end, there is an interesting discussion about how the Constitution is presented with correction that do not removed the problems unlike many other types of documents. (The 18th Amendment outlawing liquor is not removed when the 21st Amendment was passed, but both are still presented.)
Part of why it took me nearly 5 months to finish is that I was distracted and occasionally bored by the discussion. I do think that some of the history was probably too long, while other parts were probably not detailed enough. The post Bill of Rights Amendments feel like they did not get enough attention, while some of the discussion of the earlier parts of the constitution felt overdone. That being said, this is a book that you can set down and come back to without much difficulty.
If you have an interest in politics or government, it is worth spending the time to get a good historical overview of the Constitution. Just over 450 pages may feel like a lot to invest, but having finished it, I also think that there is much more that could have been discussed.