Review by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.* Engage Volume 16, Issue 1, April 27, 2015
The Constitution belongs to the American people. It is based on the proposition that all legitimate political power comes from “We the People,” and two centuries after its adoption, it is respected and cherished by ordinary Americans. When controversies arise about the exercise of power by the Congress, the President, or the courts, citizens turn to the Constitution for guidance. Many Americans interested in understanding the Constitution naturally—and quite correctly—look first to the document itself, which is relatively brief and still quite readable. But where should interested citizens look if they want to know more?
A new book by Michael Stokes Paulsen, a distinguished constitutional scholar, and his son, Luke, a recent college graduate, fits the bill. It provides a solid, intelligent, reliable, and interesting look at the origins of the Constitution, its basic structure, and its interpretation over the course of our country’s history.
Professor Paulsen and his son began this collaboration when Luke was in high school and continued throughout his college years at Princeton. It is easy to imagine this process as a conversation between a father, who has been immersed in the study of the Constitution for his entire adult life, and a bright son, who brings a new perspective and challenges the father to explain and defend.
The book begins by retelling the extraordinary events that led to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and the quick addition of the Bill of Rights. Then, in well under 100 pages, it elucidates the constitutional structure that the Constitution creates. The authors evidence a great respect for the work of the Founders, and they have harsh words for those who treat the Constitution like a Rohrshach blot. But they are also painfully honest about the flaws in the original design—and in particular, the Founders’ accommodation of slavery. The chapter devoted to this subject is one of the most interesting and will be instructive even for those who know a fair amount about the Constitution. (For example, how many lawyers know that, were it not for the infamous three-fifths provision, which counted a slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment, John Adams, not Thomas Jefferson, would have won the pivotal presidential election of 1800?)
After analyzing the constitutional text, the Paulsens provide a lively tour through 200 plus years of constitutional controversy and litigation. Famous and less well-known cases are recounted in accessible terms. Understanding some of the most important cases in our country’s history, including Marbury v. Madison and the Dred Scott case, requires at least some comprehension of what most non-lawyers are likely to regard as arcane and boring procedural questions. But the Paulsens explain these preliminary matters without seeming to break a sweat. The Paulsens also enliven the story of our country’s constitutional experience by providing brief biographies of individuals who made that history.
The Paulsens’ book fairly presents both sides on major interpretive issues, but they do not hide their own point of view. They favor a form of originalism and judicial restraint. They are decidedly Hamiltonian in their view of national and presidential power, but at the same time they support a robust conception of the individual rights set out in the Bill of Rights and post-Civil War Amendments. Substantive due process, which they trace back to Dred Scott, however, is another matter.
An appreciable percentage of those who read this impressive book are likely to disagree with the authors on at least some major points, and that is one of the book’s virtues. It invites readers to become personally engaged in the discussion of the Constitution that began in the fall of 1787 when the citizens of the states debated ratification, and this process continues today. The Paulsens’ book does not tell Americans what to think, but it provides invaluable help as they think for themselves.
*Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court
Kirkus Review Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2015
A sharp, efficient guide to the creation, content, and construction of the supreme law of the land. Michael Stokes Paulsen (Law/Univ. of St. Thomas), author of casebooks and numerous articles, brings the legal chops, and son Luke, a Princeton graduate, contributes the sidebars. These thumbnail sketches of important constitutional players and capsule commentaries on important cases add color to the main text. Both authors are committed to jargon-free, comprehensible prose. They begin by setting out the document’s framework and comment incisively on the novel concept of a written constitution deriving its authority from the people, ensuring checks and balances by separating power among the federal branches, while at the same time preserving state prerogatives. They move on to a careful, Article-by-Article explication of the respective powers of the federal government’s three branches and a detailed treatment of the Bill of Rights, “practically a second Constitution.” For the most part, the Paulsens praise the framers’ handiwork, even as they acknowledge the morally deficient protections for slavery contained in various Constitutional provisions. They devote the bulk of their narrative to a compressed, evenhanded history of the Constitution’s interpretation and the ongoing struggle to wrestle meaning from the words at the heart of our democracy. No important case goes unmentioned, no significant crisis or controversy unexplored. Some readers will quarrel with the authors’ insistence on the immutability of the Constitution’s words or perhaps with their commentary on particular cases, especially Roe v. Wade, Marbury v. Madison, and United States v. Nixon. Many will be surprised at their insistence that constitutional interpretation is not solely the province of the courts. All will appreciate the modesty and clarity they bring to this hugely complex subject. The Paulsens urge readers on to further reading and study, but they accomplish precisely what they set out to do.
A well-conceived, well-executed primer, ideal for a bright high schooler, a college student, or even the odd professor who requires a brush up on the Constitution.
Booklist Booklist Review, April 1st, 2015
The stated aim of this father-son writing team is to offer a complete and completely “reader-friendly” introduction to the U.S. Constitution, its contents, and its history, from formation to current day. They have succeeded well. The Paulsens start with how the Constitution came to be, the political forces leading to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the delineation of rights of the nation versus the states, the codification of citizens’ rights, and the accommodation of slavery. They go on to cover 225 years of interpretation and reinterpretation of the Constitution against the backdrop of the Civil War and the numerous controversies that have tested the Constitution. They highlight the social and political context behind constitutional disputes as well as the people who drove them, from contributing authors Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to challengers Frederick Douglass, Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene Debs, and “Jane Roe.” Throughout, the Paulsens challenge several myths, including that the Supreme Court always has the last word on interpretation and that the history of the Constitution has always been one of steady progress toward justice. This is a highly accessible and scholarly but lively look at the nation’s guiding document.
— Vanessa Bush