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 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.