THE WORDS THAT MADE US: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760-1840. Akhil Reed Amar. Basic Books. 817 pages. $40.
Every street corner in America has an expert on the Constitution of the United States. Most of those experts have never read the entire document, some have never read any of it, and some who have read it don’t let their misunderstanding inhibit their pontificating at cocktail parties. Standing above the madding crowd is Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale University.
Amar’s story of the Constitution begins in Boston in the 1760s when political leaders and legal scholars were discussing the colonies’ relationship with England and follows that inter-colony discussion as it grew into a decision to act in unison to separate from England and found a new country.
As the geography and the scope of the discussion increased, there were words and phrases being exchanged (and sometimes codified by colonial assemblies). Those words and phrases were brought together to provide the bulk of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The document was truly created by leaders in each of the English colonies in America.
Much of the taxation that was imposed on the colonies by the English Parliament was meant to pay the expenses of the French and Indian War, a war sparked largely by the death of a French colonel whose forces skirmished with colonial militia led by Col. George Washington.
As the colonies went to war with England, Washington was called by the Continental Congress to lead the colonial army. Washington’s war experience caused him and his lieutenants (especially Alexander Hamilton) to recognize that a loose coalition of independent states could not withstand another war with European powers. That coalition needed to change its structure in order to build the military strength and the financial strength necessary to support a new and prospering nation.
Washington chaired a committee to improve the Articles of Confederation, and the result — The Constitution of the United States of America — was approved by the Congress. Fighting against those who did not want a “United States,” Washington, Hamilton, John Jay and others were able to convince state conventions of the need for a strong union (“a more perfect union”).
Having the Constitution, a new executive position, a national court and a Congress with powers not available to the Confederation Congress, Washington now set off to invent a new nation — but he was not alone.
The words in the newly minted Constitution reflected the front-line lessons learned by Washington, Hamilton and others — lessons they shared with political leaders through letters, speeches and other communications with local and national political leaders. Their words built a foundation for a new republic.
As the republic was beginning to take shape, the carefully structured communications of Washington, Hamilton and many others began to set precedents of governance in this new republic. Even those who opposed the new government found it necessary (or expedient) to follow the precedents when they, in turn, followed Washington as chief executive of the new republic.
Amar’s expert knowledge of the Constitution does not inhibit his ability as a wordsmith to tell this story in a manner that honors the complexity of the story and remains accessible to a broad range of readers. Every patriotic American should read this fascinating history in order to better understand our founding document (The Constitution) and the history that led our ancestors to wage war against England and then against the naysayers who were opposed to the development of a strong central government.
“The Words That Made Us” is the first of a three-volume biography of the Constitution. Like the teens who devoured the Harry Potter books, I am (figuratively) standing in line awaiting the next volume, where we will learn how the national conversation helped our understanding of the Constitution evolve as society grew.