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: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

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