It’s fortunate that summer is over; this volume is not the best beach reading. Of course, that’s true of many excellent books that require careful attention, a comfortable chair, a hot mug of tea and sufficient solitude to do justice to the rich material packed within their pages.
In “America’s Unwritten Constitution,” Akhil Reed Amar aims high and has produced a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades. A professor of law and political science at Yale, Amar is no stranger to this territory. His past writing credits include “America’s Constitution: A Biography,” which illuminates the text of the nation’s most revered document. Now he tackles a more daunting assignment: mapping out the unwritten aspects of our nation’s fundamental charter — a task akin to catching the reflection of a mirror. Perhaps better than other any modern-day writer, though, he succeeds in showing how other, less conspicuous sources combine with the written text to hold the Constitution together like a woven fabric.
(George Bates for The Washington Post) - Writing the unwritten.
A warning: The book is not for the faint-hearted. At 485 pages of text, it presupposes a keen interest in history, government, politics and law. Yet it is filled with thought-provoking material and fun vignettes, suitable for a wide audience.
Amar opens with a lost episode in American history: Senators are battling during the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in March 1868, debating whether Sen.Benjamin Franklin Wade of Ohio is eligible to vote. As president pro tem of the Senate, Wade is next in line to succeed Johnson if the president is convicted. (The vice presidency is still vacant after Lincoln’s assassination.) Some senators claim it will be “an intolerable conflict of interest” if Wade — who will directly benefit if Johnson is ousted — casts a vote. Yet the text of the Constitution is silent on the matter. Other senators retort that making Wade recuse himself will strip Ohio of one of its two precious votes on this crucial impeachment question.
In the end, the Senate follows history, precedent and a broad view of the Constitution to allow Wade to vote. Not surprisingly, he casts a “guilty” ballot. Yet Johnson escapes conviction by a hair, and the integrity of the Constitution is preserved. Thanks to a recognition that a crabbed reading of the text does not always produce a result that’s consistent with the Constitution as a whole, the spirit of the nation’s fundamental charter remains intact.
Similarly, Amar paints a vivid picture of the women’s suffrage revolution that culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving female citizens the right to vote. He invokes this history — and the admonitions of Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt — to argue that Congress holds unusually broad power to enact laws that protect women’s rights in a variety of areas. This is true, he says, “for the simple reason that the unwritten Constitution is a Constitution of American popular sovereignty” that must be viewed through the lens of the adoption of the 19th Amendment.