Mark Twain once defined a classic as a work "that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." (1) The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1788, is a classic document that many Americans have surely read, but how many of them are familiar with its contents?
Anyone interested in learning more about the Constitution, its interpretation and development over the past two-plus centuries, and which issues are today the most critically divisive, will find this work to be a superb and eminently readable introduction. It is instructive and enlightening without being ponderous. The prose is crisp and straightforward, unburdened by legal jargon. There are no footnotes or endnotes. And the reader requires no legal dictionary to appreciate the thrust of the discussion at each point.
The authors are a father-son team, Michael and Luke Paulsen, who collaborated on the book over nine consecutive summers. Michael is a foremost Constitutional Law scholar who previously held a distinguished chair at the Law School of the University of Minnesota and who currently occupies such a chair at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis. Luke, a high schooler, and later, college student, thoroughly and challengingly discussed each topic, thereby enhancing the clarity and usefulness of this tome to lay readers as well as to seasoned scholars in the field. Moreover, useful biographical and historical sketches are virtual gems that pepper the work throughout.
The first part of the book is devoted to "The Written Constitution." Here the authors present the historical background to the adoption of Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. They describe the forces that led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the decision of the delegates to jettison the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation and replace them with a document that would weld the thirteen separate states into one nation ruled by a strong central government. They highlight the controversies that emerged in Philadelphia and the compromises that reconciled large and small states; North and South; and advocates of stronger central government and proponents of more state autonomy. The need to bridge the gap between the last of these rival forces persisted after the Convention closed, and it featured mightily in the ratification struggle. In the end, the controversy was resolved by the adoption of the Bill of Rights which reassured states' righters that the rights of citizens and of independent states would...