Monday, August 16, 2021

The Words That Made Us: America's Constitutional Conversation, 1760 - 1840 (Akhil Reed Amar)

History books that dive into the subject of the US Constitution are a dime a dozen.  However, Akhil Reed Amar’s The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840 is arguably one of the more comprehensive books to tackle the evolution of constitutional thinking in America’s Revolutionary era and in its early days thereafter. Amar’s book, the first of a hopeful trilogy, highlights an eighty year period from before the nation’s independence through the release of James Madison’s notes from the Philadelphia convention that ultimately drafted the nation’s governance roadmap.

Amar highlights the evolution in the nation’s constitutional thinking to a continual series of conversations, one that started with colonial matters regarding taxation (which most of us recall from our history books) and monarchical edicts. One such “writ of assistance” from the British Crown was the groundwork to our 4th Amendment in the Constitution, which bans unreasonable searches. Amar continues the journey through the nation’s founding and its reboot with the Constitution and how key leaders established and entrenched precedent that helped shape our nation for generations to come.

The author offers strong opinions and at times you may disagree with his thinking; however, he backs up his assertions with strong research. He’s very kind to the federalist point of view that Hamilton and Adams espouse and gives more praise to George Washington than most scholars in the framing of the Constitution, particularly in setting up a strong presidency. 

The Words That Made Us is not short - it clocks in at 700 pages before notes and index. It will take some time to read. However, its thoughtful scholarship and fair coverage of our nation’s history make it a great starting point to learn about America’s Constitution, a document many of us struggle to understand properly.