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.

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

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