Pauline Maier and various old, dead dudes – The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States (1998/2008)
Here’s a weird one. I’m reading a book with no vampires in it. No robots, no superheroes, no magicians, no punks (although there are plenty of agitators), no monsters, no fantasy… Why, given my proclivities, would I bother reading this book? Because it’s important. Because the rules that were established in these documents affect my life on a daily basis. Because it was really cheap… I’d been considering doing a review of the Constitution and subsequent amendments for a while, and on my recent trip to the Oregon coast, I spotted this Bantam edition in a cutout bookstore for about two bucks (less than the price of a coffee), and I grabbed it.
For folks who have never read these utopian documents (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), the most surprising thing about them will undoubtedly be their brevity. Short. The entire book is fewer than 100 pages, and the first 51 are taken up by an essay by historian, Dr. Pauline Maier. The actual texts of the Declaration of Independence, the entire Constitution, and all 27 amendments take up about 40 pages, and the typeface isn’t especially small. That’s a LOT of ideas crammed into a very small page count.
As for the essay by Dr. Maier, it’s a short but engaging history of the processes involved in the drafting and ratifying of these documents. It was intriguing to see how contentious the drafting process was, and although we tend to think of these documents as sacred today, and have mythologized the “Founding Fathers,” into near demi-god status, Maier shows how unsure, how tentative, the authors were and how close to failure the ratification process was in each case. Did you know that the Bill of Rights originally had 12 amendments, not 10, that it wasn’t actually added to the Constitution until four years after the that document was signed, or that the Declaration of Independence was NOT the most popular document circulating in the nascent United States in the build up to the Revolutionary War? Maier, who specialized in the history of the Revolutionary War, humanizes the authors of the Declaration and contextualizes the process of creating that document, explaining why certain key items were included and what the creators where hoping to avoid. It’s an enlightening essay.
The documents themselves are interesting, particularly the Declaration of Independence, which spends a large number of words justifying the break from England and clarifying what a government should and should NOT do to a “free people.” (Someone needs to read this document to the current administration.) The amendments are also fascinating, as you can see in them the evolution of the key concepts that have faced the U.S., including the meaning of the phrase “all Men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. There are missteps and corrections in the amendments, and for folks who have no cultural memory, noting the DATES of when some of the amendments were added can be shocking.
For any citizen of the U.S., or for folks who are interested in colonial history, or for people who are interested in the philosophies of individual freedoms, I think these works are essential reading. They aren’t always “page turningly” exciting, particularly when they get into the construction of the various branches of government and the nuts and bolts of eligibility for office and terms of office and such, but it’s still good to know. In addition, even though all of these documents are available online for free, I’m glad that I bought this edition because the essay by Dr. Maier helped put the creation of these works into context, illuminating some of the key components in ways that just reading the documents themselves won’t make clear. It’s worth the four dollar cover price to have the extra information and insight. Final word, if you haven’t already read these documents in school, or haven’t read them recently, then you should. Remember, “Knowing is half the battle!”
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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