The Constitution: An Introduction

Image of The Constitution: An Introduction
Release Date: 
May 5, 2015
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“an erudite and entertaining discussion of the U.S. Constitution . . .”

“We The People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

This is the preamble for the U.S. Constitution. And most people could not get past the “We the People” part. Our government is based on this preeminent document. Yet few Americans have ever read it. For most Americans, the Constitution is something people call up when they believe their “rights” are being violated. But this roadmap under which the federal government, and to some extent state governments as well, operates is more complex, more nuanced than people realize.

In The Constitution, father and son authors Michael and Luke Paulsen clearly written, easy to understand introduction to this exceptional document. Given the fact that studying the Constitution is the lifelong work of hundreds of legal scholars, this book points out that average people can also understand it.

The authors explain the Constitution’s growing pains, the challenges it has faced since its ratification in 1788, and the controversies in the document and its interpretations.  

The Constitution was a first—no other country had ever put in writing the powers and limitations of any government. Today, England is talking about whether it needs a written constitution. The U.S. Constitution has served as a model for numerous other governments. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin would be mighty pleased that their “grand design” has had such a lasting effect.

Whether those men would agree with how the Supreme Court has interpreted the document or how Congress and presidents have sought to manipulate it or how the states have amended it will remain an unanswered question. And for 226 years, the U.S. Constitution continues to control and manage this governmental experiment known as the United States of America.

In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court in Marbury v. Madison, wrote, “Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate then as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation.” In this decision, the United States Supreme Court asserted its power, and responsibility, to interpret the Constitution and overturn laws that conflict with it. That comports with the court’s responsibility to uphold the Constitution.

In McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall wrote, “We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding . . . intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”

Article VI requires all government officials--at all levels of government--“[s]hall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.” The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land and it is superior to all of authority in the country.

One of the best chapters revolves around freedoms: press, religion, assembly; Chapter 5 addresses the Bill of Rights—the first ten constitutional amendments. Calling the Bill of Rights, “practically the second Constitution setting forth new checks and balances and limitations on government power,” the authors delve into what these rights mean to the people.

As a practical matter, most Americans restrict their association with the Constitution to the rights set out in the first five Amendments. Understanding what those who wrote the amendments meant about these rights could be an eye-opening experience for people.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law and the U.S. Constitution. The court, often referred to these days as SCOTUS, has waxed and waned in the breadth of its interpretation of the Constitution when considering cases.

Some constitutional scholars and SCOTUS justices are “strict constructionists.” They favor a narrow, conservative interpretation of the Constitution and profess a limited or restricted judicial interpretation belief. Others sometimes referred to as “loose constructionist or liberal constructionists” believe judges may consider other factors, such as purpose or objective, when interpreting the Constitution. The battle between these two philosophies is ongoing.

The authors appear to be “strict constructionists.” They take exception to the position that words and phrases can change in meaning. “The Constitution was designed to permanent, not shifting in meaning with each generation.”

The book is written from this point of view and the authors challenge “activist judges” throughout the book. They do acknowledge that some SCOTUS decisions have been horrid. The Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, issued in 1857, is a case in point. The authors call this decision, “. . . arguably the worst decision in the Court’s history.”

In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that blacks could never be citizens of either the U.S. or any state. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that blacks were “. . . beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race . . . they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro must justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” The court also decided that the U.S. Constitution allowed blacks to be held as slaves. Some believe this decision was the trigger for the American Civil War.

Because most Americans are familiar (well, sort of) with their constitutional rights involving freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion, the chapters dealing with the Supreme Court’s rulings on these issues are the most interesting sections of the book.

The authors cite the 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut as “the most visible activist decision of the Warren Court era.” This decision invalidated the Connecticut law that prohibited the sale of contraceptives to married couples. This decision was the first to declare that a “right to privacy” exists within the “penumbras, formed by emanations” in the Bill of Rights. The authors claim, “Griswold was a harbinger of even greater activism to come.”

This is what makes this book so interesting. Readers who believe the judicial activism has run amuck and the Supreme Court is out of control and needs to be reined in will find kindred souls in Michael and Luke Paulsen. Those that consider themselves “liberal constructionists” will be given an education into why the “strict constructionists” believe as they do.

Either way, both sides of the aisle will find an erudite and entertaining discussion of the U.S. Constitution—where it’s been and how far it’s come. The best part is no one needs to be a constitutional scholar to understand and appreciate this book.