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 Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

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.

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

The Legion of Doom’s latest plan has been thwarted by the Justice League of America, and Lex Luthor is trapped in ice for a thousand years.  He’s accidentally unleashed by two teenage heroes of the 31st Century, Karate Kid and Dawnstar.  Luthor promptly steals an hourglass that controls the power of the Time Trapper, and comes up with a new plan–get rid of Superman on the day he came to Earth, and the Justice League will never come to be!

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

This movie was commissioned by Target to tie into their new line of JLA toys, so it’s more kid-friendly  than some of the other recent DC Comics animated fare that’s aimed at teens and up.  It’s not in any previous continuity, blending aspects of the New 52 (the costumes, the lineup of the Justice League minus Green Lantern) and the Super Friends (Robin is on the team, the Legion of Doom’s rather silly plans, the two teen trainee heroes.)

Most of the League has rather flat characterization–Robin at least gets to be sarcastic.   Dawnstar and Karate Kid are the actual stars of the show.  They’ve swapped personalities somewhat from their classic portrayals–KK is brash and impulsive (and wears a costume reminiscent both of Super Friends character Samurai, and of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. ) Dawnstar is introverted and a bit timid (and has vaguely-defined light powers in addition to her normal tracking and flight.)

The Legion of Doom gets to have a bit more fun in their parts, particularly Bizarro and Solomon Grundy.  The guest villain, Time Trapper, is appropriately spooky, foreshadowing that it’s much more dangerous than Lex Luthor realizes.

As mentioned above, this short film is pretty family-friendly.  There’s fantasy violence, but no one is permanently hurt, no foul language, and no sexual innuendo.  Karate Kid and Dawnstar make mistakes, and learn a valuable life lesson.

Two short Super Friends episodes are also included on the DVD, both with time-related stories.  They make the main feature look good by comparison.

I’d recommend this for Super Friends fans, and families with kids who enjoy superhero cartoons.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy

George

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

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