The Words That Made Us
America's Constitutional Conversation, 1760–1840(amazon)
Akhil Reed Amar (View Bio)
Hardcover: Basic Books, 2021.
When the US Constitution won popular approval in 1788, it was the culmination of thirty years of passionate argument over the nature of government. But ratification hardly ended the conversation. For the next half century, ordinary Americans and statesmen alike continued to wrestle with weighty questions in the halls of government and in the pages of newspapers. Should the nation’s borders be expanded? Should America allow slavery to spread westward? What rights should Indian nations hold? What was the proper role of the judicial branch?
In The Words that Made Us, Akhil Reed Amar unites history and law in a vivid narrative of the biggest constitutional questions early Americans confronted, and he expertly assesses the answers they offered. His account of the document’s origins and consolidation is a guide for anyone seeking to properly understand America’s Constitution today.
"Akhil Reed Amar, the Sterling professor of law and political science at Yale, explores this territory brilliantly in The Words That Made Us, his deeply probing, highly readable study of ‘America’s constitutional conversation’ from 1760 to 1840.... In addition to educating the Americans engaged in this discussion about their rich constitutional legacy, the book has a generous spirit that can be a much-needed balm in these troubled times." — Adam Cohen, The New York Times (Read the full review)
"The U.S. collectively talked and wrote its way into being, according to this dazzling constitutional history…. The author frames this history as a series of 'conversations' among the founders in formal congresses and informal letter-writing circles, and among ordinary people through newspapers, pamphlets, cartoons, and elections. Against modern historians and legal scholars who condemn the constitutional order as a bulwark of elite dominion, Amar advances a neo-Federalist defense of it as a deeply democratic, if imperfect, blueprint for stable liberty. This is no arid exercise in legal theory: Amar ties searching constitutional analysis into a gripping narrative of war, popular tumults, political intrigue, and even fashion, highlighted by vivid profiles of statesmen…. The result is a fresh, invigorating take on America’s founding that puts epic deliberation at the heart of democracy." — Publishers Weekly (starred review) (Read the full review)
"A page-turning doorstop history of how early American courts and politicians interpreted the Constitution. A Yale professor of law and political science, Amar has written numerous books on constitutional matters. In his latest excellent analysis, the author emphasizes that Americans debated the nature of government for 30 years before the Constitution’s approval in 1788, and much of this occurred in courtrooms. Scholars have not ignored this or what followed, but Amar—who points out that most historians lack training in law and most lawyers are not knowledgeable enough about history—delivers a fascinating, often jolting interpretation. Perhaps most ingeniously, he asks, who is ‘the father of the constitution?’ The traditional answer is James Madison, who participated in the major debates, kept the best records, and worked tirelessly for ratification. However, few of his ideas survived the debates, and others were attributed to him in error. Amar leans toward Washington, who ‘uniquely…got everything he wanted.’ The Constitution’s most ‘distinctive feature,’ its ‘breathtakingly strong chief executive…owed more to Washington alone than to all the other delegates combined.’ Ranking other Founding Fathers, Amar places Hamilton second. A brilliant legal mind, he converted the Constitution’s sketchy articles into the strong executive that Washington envisioned. Adams and Jefferson fare badly. Both were absent from the Philadelphia convention, and Jefferson was never more than lukewarm about the results. Madison also comes up short. His conception of the Constitution never envisioned a powerful executive, and once he saw this happening, he turned against Washington, ‘partly to save his own political skin back in Virginia, partly because he was a policy lightweight on certain big issues (including banks, trade, and national defense), and partly because he was smitten by Jefferson.’ Amar gives high marks to Chief Justice John Marshall, but his discussion of Andrew Jackson is unlikely to rescue that president’s plummeting reputation. Focusing on the Constitution, he emphasizes Jackson’s fierce opposition to the concept of state sovereignty promoted by John C. Calhoun, which permitted nullification and perhaps even secession. Brilliant insights into America’s founding document." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"This first volume of a proposed trilogy about the U.S. Constitution (each book to treat an 80-year span) sweeps forward from 1760 to 1840 in an audacious review of the Constitution’s origins, growth, development, and implementation, and the experiences and exchanges that produced its core principles and precedents. Amar blends biographical narratives with constitutional analysis to consider the American Revolution, the Confederation years, the Constitutional Convention, and the early national period. He discusses the thinking and interplay of framers George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and early shapers of constitutional law, including Chief Justice John Marshall and Justice Joseph Story. Amar’s multifaceted treatment of the start of the U.S. constitutional project illustrates much about our historical memory and demonstrates that there is far more to the constitution than the document itself; all this complicates its understanding. Although sometimes dense in detail, Amar’s original work offers general readers an accessible and often entertaining narrative and lessons to glean from the founding document of the United States. The wide range of material covered in the book will give scholars plenty of interpretations to engage with." — Library Journal (starred review)
"In The Words That Made Us, Amar offers a fresh look at the ideas that shaped the Revolution, constitutional framing, and early republic.... Amar also provides masterful discussions of important Supreme Court cases.... Consider the magnitude of Amar’s achievement. He has written a book both popular and learned, one that is fast-paced enough to hold the attention of the general reader and yet makes enough new points about fundamental matters to engage the serious scholar. And it comes a critical time. Amar shows why the Founding and the early republic deserve our continued respect even if many of the great men responsible for its creation had flaws of character and moral blind spots, as do we all. It a book not only of a scholar but a patriot. If widely read, it may make the difficulty of finding appropriate professional historians to teach our children less of a threat to our common future." — John O. McGinnis, Law & Liberty (Read the full review)