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‘America’s Constitution’: Putting It All Together

Franklin Roosevelt called it “the most marvelously elastic compilation of rules of government ever written.”

Lyndon Johnson said it provides “ample room for the rich fertility of American political invention.”

And humorist Will Rogers said it “protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.”

Whatever the case, Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar thinks everybody kind of has it wrong when it comes to the U.S. Constitution. Even he didn’t quite get it for 20 years, he said.

Which is why he wrote “America’s Constitution: A Biography.”

“This is a book that at one level, is the culmination of my 20-year love affair with the Constitution,” said Amar, 46. “I wanted to write a book that would force me [to learn] things about the Constitution that I did not yet know.”

In the book, the Yale Law School professor looks at the history of the U.S. Constitution, from its founding up to today. He argues it is one of the most misunderstood political documents ever, primarily because scholars have failed to look at how the course of American history has shaped it.

“We have lots of books about individual parts of the Constitution, but we don’t really have a book that tries to put it all together,” Amar said.

Most Americans picture the United States circa 1787 as a place of stuffy men dressed in powdered wigs, Amar said. But in actuality, the infant country and the document that shaped it were filled with radical democratic values, dreams of expanding west and a visible support for slavery.

“That’s the original Constitution,” Amar said. “And that will be a surprising picture.”

What It Was — and How It’s Changed

The Constitution is often praised for the fact that it has changed little since the Founding Fathers made it law more than 200 years ago.

But the Constitution of today and the Constitution of pre-Civil War America are strikingly different, Amar said.

In one sense, the initial Constitution actually failed, Amar argued.

Some scholars have said the infamous three-fifths compromise — which said three-fifths of slaves would be added in determining the population of a state for taxation purposes and representation in Congress — kept the Constitution neutral on the slavery issue.

But “the original Constitution was pro-slavery. That’s something that hasn’t been understood,” Amar said.

According to Amar, the compromise legitimized slavery in America, and in doing so, clearly affected its political course.

Take the presidential election of 1801, for example. Thomas Jefferson challenged and defeated incumbent John Adams. But that victory was based on the fact that the three-fifths slave representation gave him more electoral votes.

“You take away those extra three-fifths, John Adams won that election,” Amar said.

Slavery would not end in America until 1865. Once that happened, the Constitution was a completely different document.

“It came about because we had a civil war, and half a million people died, and our Constitution started going in a different direction,” Amar said.

That isn’t the only misunderstood thing about the Constitution, Amar said.

A prevailing theory among scholars, first introduced by Charles Beard’s 1913 work, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” is that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution as a way to maintain their own power.

But aside from its pro-slavery stance, the Constitution was far more democratic than most scholars acknowledge, Amar said, and certainly revolutionary for its time.

Governments of the late 16th century were typically left to apathetic aristocrats, Amar said. For example, a 24-year-old William Penn, son of the famous British statesman of the same name, was the British prime minister at the time.

“He’s getting the gig because everybody knows his daddy,” Amar said.

But the Constitution created a system that would force people to earn their place in office, Amar said.

Members of Congress earned salaries, allowing non-elites to be able to serve in political office. Age requirements forced people to have a track record.

And, perhaps most important, more people were able to vote than ever before, creating a viable democratic system.

“Who are your early presidents?” Amar said. “They are people who don’t have sons, so they are to be trusted. And they are generals and diplomats.”

The power of those generals and diplomats showcases the third major theme of the Constitution: the desire for a strong foreign policy. The Founding Fathers wanted to lay down plans for the United States to expand westward while establishing a way to defend the new nation against the powers of Europe, Amar said.

Where the Future Lies

Amar’s book, which hit stores Sept. 20, has received good reviews.

The Washington Post called it “elegant” and “an uncommonly engaging work of scholarship.” Publishers Weekly also piled on the praise.

“Only rarely do you find a book that embodies scholarship at its most solid and invigorating,” the review said. “This is such a book.”

Amar said he wrote the book with A.P. history students in mind. He wanted to make it interesting to read but so informative that people will keep it as a reference on their bookshelf for years.

“It’s a book that I would think would be as relevant in 2015,” Amar said.

And as the United States changes, Amar thinks so will its Constitution.

For 200 years, the country has maintained its democracy because its geography kept it free from foreign invasion. That kept the need for a visible military at a minimum and allowed the government to focus mostly on domestic issues.

But in today’s post-Sept. 11 world, Americans find themselves in a unprecedented situation. The old way might not work anymore. The meaning of the Constitution might change again.

“We need new people coming up with new creative solutions,” Amar said.