Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

Book Review: The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution by Richard Beeman

After the last book I reviewed, I felt I needed something a bit more intellectually challenging to recharge my brain cells.  Thus this volume, which contains not just the annotated text of the United States Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence, selections from the Federalist Papers, and a short history of how these things came about.

The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution

The troubles started in the aftermath of the French and Indian War, which England won, but at high cost, and the British government was broke.  Parliament decided that as the American colonists had gained the most with the new lands taken from the French, they should be willing to help pay for them with raised taxes and trade restrictions.

Unlike the West Indies (where Alexander Hamilton was from), the Continental colonies had not yet been able to buy seats in Parliament to represent their interests; and they’d thought that their successful help in the war would have changed that.  So it was like a teenager who’s helped Dad with a big project and is expecting more autonomy as a result being told, “No, son, money’s tight, so I’m cutting your allowance and you  can’t hang out with your friends at the mall any more.”

The colonists considered themselves loyal subjects of the British Crown and therefore deserving of all the rights and privileges of free Englishmen.  Parliament and the British government considered the colonists wayward children to be taken in hand.  When the colonials protested against “taxation without representation”, the children were backtalking their rightful elders, and the proper response was to put them back in their place.

Part of the issue was that the British Constitution was “unwritten”, cobbled together from documents like the Magna Carta, court decisions, and acts of Parliament.  Thus it was vulnerable to being altered at any time the government felt they could get away with it.  Such as in this situation.  After all, the colonists had no representation in Parliament, and thus no voice to speak for them.  What were they going to do, declare independence?

Feelings and actions escalated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  Still mostly loyal British subjects, the colonists kept trying to find diplomatic solutions even as protests escalated and started breaking out into violence.  The British government reacted by cracking down even harder, and demanding obedience, not negotiation.

By the time the Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from the various American colonies, convened, the Colonies were already in a state of rebellion, with British troops on the ground fighting them.  Faced with this reality, they decided that it was time for a Declaration of Independence, explaining to the world why they were rebelling.  The reasons listed are one-sided–the colonists were no longer trying to be fair-minded or conciliatory.

Of course, once you’ve declared independence (huzzah!) you then have to govern yourself (drat!)  The thirteen colonies had learned the perils of too-centralized government that didn’t understand local issues.  But without the unifying tie of British rule, the colonies were like thirteen small countries that had very different priorities.  Some had large populations, while others were tiny.  Some had already begun industrializing, while others had agriculture as their main economic activity.  And the sticking point that caused the most argument, slavery.

While some forms of slavery had been legal in all the colonies during the preceding centuries, by the mid-Eighteenth Century, economic changes and philosophical/religious movements turned against the practice, especially in the Northeastern colonies, some of which had actually banned owning people as property!  Meanwhile, the Southern colonies had made their economic system and culture highly dependent on chattel slavery, and particularly on enslaving people of African descent.  And they had their own religious movements to promote the idea.

With all those disagreements in mind, the Articles of Confederation for the newly independent United States of America were more like guidelines than rules, and gave responsibilities to the central government without the power or funds to actually do those things.  It didn’t work at all well.

Faced with the possibility that this alliance would fall apart, a Constitutional Convention was formed, supposedly just to amend the Articles.  But it was hijacked by delegates who wanted to create a whole new written Constitution with a central government that was strong enough to do necessary things, but bound by checks and balances to prevent tyranny.

Many, many compromises later, including some shameful concessions to slavery, a Constitution was made, and proposed to the States.  Notably, an enumerated Bill of Rights of the citizens was not included, for two reasons.  First, what would become known as the Federalists feared that if some rights were enumerated in the Constitution, that would block un-enumerated rights from being extrapolated.  (See, for example, the arguments for and against women having a right to make decisions about their own reproductive systems.)  And second, everyone realized that it would take more months of arguing to agree on a Bill of Rights, and the delegates were already sick of each other.

Instead, it was promised that a series of amendments to provide a bill of rights would be the first business of the new United States Congress, to be voted on by the states.

What we now call the Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay as both propaganda to convince the States to adopt the Constitution, and to explain their interpretations of how the Constitution worked.  For example, judicial review by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of acts of Congress wasn’t spelled out in the Constitution, but Hamilton argued that it would be part of their natural function.  (And in Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court agreed.)

Once Congress convened under the new United States Constitution, the amendments we now call the Bill of Rights were indeed a top priority.  More amendments have come along since, each with its own consequences and controversies.

The annotations by Richard Beeman, a professor of history and Constitutional scholar, explain in plainer language what each part of the Constitution is about, and why they’re important.  He also discusses the controversies and alternative interpretations that have arisen over the years.

After the main history section, Mr. Beeman discusses various important Supreme Court cases that have altered the interpretation of the Constitution.  (He admits that other cases could have been included.)

The book ends with suggested further reading on the various subjects presented–after all, you don’t want to take just one scholar’s opinion on these important matters.  There is no index or endnotes.

This is a good condensed and portable edition that will be valuable any time you need to know what the Constitution and related documents actually says.  All American citizens should have a copy of the Constitution handy, so I highly recommend having a book like this, if not necessarily this book,  on your shelf.

And now, let’s have a video of someone reading the Declaration of Independence out loud.

Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Comic Book Review: Alexander Hamilton written by Jonathan Hennessey, art by Justin Greenwood.

Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804) was born in the West Indies, immigrated to the mainland American colonies in his teens, fought in the American Revolution, and served as the first Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.  He was killed in a duel with the then-Vice President, Aaron Burr.  Controversial during his lifetime, Hamilton was eventually honored by being placed on the ten-dollar bill, and has recently had a musical based on his life become a Broadway hit.

Alexander Hamilton

That musical has done much to revive interest in Alexander Hamilton, and there have been a number of books about him published in the last couple of years.  This volume is a graphic novel biography.  It takes advantage of that format by opening with a quotation about the dangers of liberty, and introducing the visual motif of Adam and the Serpent, here portrayed by Benjamin Franklin’s segmented colonies.

While the use of the visual format was good overall, the actual art often is not up to par.  It’s often hard to tell that a particular person is supposed to be the same person from a few pages before without the captions, and the artist often draws faces with misaligned eyes.  (I will admit that less than stellar art is a tradition in biographical comics.)

It’s a “warts and all” biography, which goes into some detail about Hamilton’s extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds.  (Which we know more about than some Founding Fathers’ affairs because Mr. Hamilton overshared information in an attempt to prove himself innocent of fiscal wrongdoing at the Treasury.)

The book goes into some detail about how Hamilton’s childhood in poverty and difficult family circumstances, and the political climate of the time, may have influenced his views on things like slavery (personally opposed, but willing to compromise), centralized government with a strong executive, and fiscal policy.  It’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers often disagreed (sometimes violently) about the right direction for the young United States, and the interpretation of the Constitution.

There’s an index, but most of the supplementary material has been outsourced to a website.  This is a good choice for people whose curiosity on the subject of Mr. Hamilton was aroused by the musical, but aren’t ready to tackle an 800 page formal biography.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up, but parents of younger readers should be available for discussions on the more difficult topics raised, such as slavery, marital infidelity and class struggle.  Check your local library!

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

Book Review: The Return of George Washington 1783-1789 by Edward J. Larson

Disclaimer:  I received this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.   My copy is an Advance Reader’s Edition, and changes will be made in the final version, including an index and more illustrations.

The Return of George Washington 1783-1789

George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” has had a great number of books written about him.  However, most of them are general biographies of his entire life, or focus on his two most active periods, being Commander in Chief of the American revolutionary forces, and being the United States of America’s first president.  This book covers the period between those two, when Washington was trying to retire to his day job as a farm owner and landlord.

As one might expect, Washington being away in the war for eight years had done Mount Vernon no favors, and there was much to set right.  In addition, land that he owned in the west was either mismanaged or infested with squatters.  For these personal reasons, and because he feared that the newly settled lands might pull away from the new republic unless there were good communication routes, Washington sponsored building a navigable waterway up the Potomac River.

Unfortunately for George, it quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation weren’t a sufficient framework to run the new country on.  The Continental Congress couldn’t pay its bills, including the back pay of the Revolutionary Army, because the individual states didn’t want to give them any money.  And the Articles didn’t allow them to force payment.  (Kind of like how certain countries are perennially behind on their dues to the United Nations in the modern day.)

Bad money policy led to hyperinflation in some states, while too strict a money squeeze in Massachusetts led to Shays’ Rebellion when debtors could not get relief.

So a convention was called to fix some of the problems with the government–only to have it taken over by those who felt a wholesale overhaul and a new constitution was the only way to go forward.  Washington was reluctantly called forward to chair the convention and give it the public gravitas it needed to be taken seriously.

The convention adopted a strict rule of secrecy as to its proceedings, and Mr. Washington took this very seriously, not writing any of the details in his diary or personal letters.  As he seldom spoke on the floor, what was going through his head, and what backroom conversations Washington might have been having are mostly unknown to us.

Still, the convention came up with an innovative three-part federal government with checks and balances built in.  Not everyone liked all the compromises made, but as a process for amendment was included, it was sent to the states, who mostly voted for ratification.

The problem for Washington at that point was that the new Constitution called for a strong central executive, the President.  And there was just one man the Federalists trusted to be the first, Washington himself.  So he spent the first Presidential campaign not running for office, but desperately trying to get on with his personal life before it was wrested away by his country again.

There’s an epilogue which briefly covers the Presidential years and Washington’s later life.  There is a long endnotes section and several black and white illustrations.

Mind you, this story isn’t all good news.  George Washington, like everyone else, had his flaws.  The most pressing one is that he was a slaveowner, one of the biggest in Virginia.   He seems to have been ambivalent on the subject of slavery, regretting its “necessity” but always finding it economically unfeasible to do without buying more slaves, and only making good on his promise to free his personal slaves in his will…with the actual freedom to be after Martha Washington’s death.

For more on one particular slave of the Washingtons, see this article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oney_Judge .

However, it seems likely that his slaveholding helped the Southern states accept the Constitution and the idea of a President more willingly than they otherwise would have.  And Washington’s patriotism and sense of civic duty were strong influences on the early shape of the United States government.

As with other biographies that only cover a limited time span, students will want to supplement this volume with a more general biography.  I’d recommend this book for high schoolers on up, as the subject matter is a bit dry for most younger readers’ tastes.

And to round out this post, let;s have a look at the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

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