I celebrated Independence Day with an exploration of what happened between July 4, 1776 and September 13, 1788 when the Continental Congress adopted the new U.S. Constitution to go into effect on March 4, 1789. My understanding of that period of history is pretty thin given how important the Constitution remains to this day.
I skimmed several books.
The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood, 1969.
Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman, 2009
The first book would be great for a serious look at this topic. He quotes liberally from contemporary documents. I’m unlikely to ever want to dive into this topic that deeply.
Plain, Honest Men, on the other hand, is remarkably readable. I ended up sharing a couple of quotes from this book on Facebook as I was learning new things. Here’s one:
In reviewing the controversy over the three-fifths clause, one comes away with a depressing sense of the near-total absence of anything resembling a moral dimension to the debate. The three-fifths compromise was, fundamentally, about states’ individual interests, not the morality of slavery. pp. 213-214
Two annotations of The Constitution:
Our Constitution by Donald A. Ritchie, 2006.
The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence by Jack N. Rakove, 2009.
The 72-page introduction of The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence is a nice short version of the history from the Declaration to the Constitution. If one wanted to read the entirety of the Constitution, this would be a pretty quick way to get the job done with just enough annotation to provide a little context.
Our Constitution would be more fun, though. It’s a coffee table book with a magazine-style layout and lots of pictures. Sidebars cover how parts of the Constitution have played out in practice in nearly 230 years.
And, one more book:
Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws that Affect Us Today by Cynthia Levinson & Sanford Levinson, 2017.
This is an up-to-date book that encourages teens to think critically about the Constitution with lots of examples about what has gone wrong in our history. I love the sections that talk about different ways of doing things, using examples from individual states and from other countries.
In my reading in the first four books, my biggest take-away was how badly I was taught history. Why didn’t I learn about Shays’ Rebellion? Probably because it didn’t fit neatly into the narrative of the wise founding fathers and the brave and united revolutionaries.
Why wasn’t I taught that a big reason that slavery continued was that our founding fathers didn’t have enough vision to imagine black citizens? Probably because my teachers didn’t want to destroy that wise founding father myth.
Mason, like another deeply conflicted Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, was simultaneously repelled by the inequities of the institution of slavery and by the presence of blacks in his society. As much as Mason may have wished to rid his state–and his country–of slavery, his inability to imagine free blacks as equal citizens left him paralyzed. p. 323 Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman
I wish that I’d had Fault Lines in the Constitution to give me a truer understanding of how the Constitution came to be and how it’s worked (and, sometimes, not worked) since then.
How well do you know the U.S. Constitution?