The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction

By in Constitutional Law on March 9, 2013

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A leading scholar of constitutional law delivers an incisive and brilliant new account of the Bill of Rights and explodes conventional wisdom about our most basic charter of liberty. Akhil Reed Amar not only illuminates the text, structure, and history of the 1789 Bill but also argues that its present character owes more to antislavery activists of the Reconstruction era than to the Founding Fathers who created the Bill.”The Bill of Rights stands as the high temple of our constitutional order–America’s Parthenon–and yet we lack a clear view of it,” Akhil Reed Amar writes in his introduction to The Bill of Rights. “Instead of being studied holistically, the Bill has been broken up … with each segment examined in isolation.” With The Bill of Rights, Amar aims to put the pieces back together and take a longer view of a document few Americans truly understand. Part history of the Bill, part analysis of what the Founding Fathers’ intentions really were, this book provides a unique interpretation of the Constitution. It is Amar’s hypothesis that, contrary to popular belief, the Bill of Rights was not originally constructed to protect the minority against the majority, but rather to empower popular majorities. It wasn’t until 19th-century post-Civil War reconstruction and the introduction of the 14th Amendment that the notion of individual rights took hold. Prior to that, the various amendments to the Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights were more about the structure of government and designed to protect citizens against a self-interested regime. Yet so great has been the impact of the 14th Amendment on modern legal thought that the Bill’s original intentions have almost been forgotten.

Through skillful interpretation and solid research, Amar both reconstructs the original thinking of the Founding Fathers and chronicles the radical changes that have occurred since the inclusion of the 14th Amendment in the Bill of Rights. The results make for provocative reading no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.

3 thoughts on “The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction

  1. 1
    40 of 46 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Great Text, But The Proof is in The Endnotes!, August 31, 2001
    Jorje Chica (Anaheim, CA USA) –

    Professor Amar has written an excellent analysis of the “original” understanding of the Bill of Rights and how that understanding was modified by the Civil War and the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    My only criticisms are the following:

    (1) Amar relies heavily on “legislative history,” especially statements made by members of Congress and Senators during legislative debates. He does not, however, attempt to deal with the scholarly debate over the relevance and weight to be attached to such “evidence.” As many have argued persuasively (especially Justice Scalia), how can we ever determine what the “intent” of a body as large as Congress is? And do the statements of a few legislators accurately reflect the views of their colleagues, especially when most speeches in Congress are made to almost empty chambers? And what about the more disturbing fact that many such “speeches” are actually prepared written statements inserted into the Congressional Record?

    (2) Amar’s tone, especially in the endnotes (I would have preferred the law-review style of footnotes), is less than civil when it comes to other scholars. His vitriol directed at the likes of Professors Fairman and Berger is astounding. Likewise, his comments on the quality of analysis and supporting evidence in other books and law review articles borders on plain meanness. This type of jousting is all too common in law review articles, especially the battles hidden in footnotes. I find this behavior uncalled for. Scholars can point out weaknesses in other people’s work without (effectively) calling them idiots.

    With these reservations in mind, I highly recommend this book to any serious student of the Constitution, or of American history in general.

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  2. Brandon L. Bigelow
    11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The ambiguous lessons of history, January 25, 2001
    Brandon L. Bigelow (Reading, MA USA) –

    This review is from: The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (Paperback)

    Professor Amar’s book is absolutely essential to a complete understanding of the history and future of the notion of substantive due process. Although he ostensibly writes about “The Bill of Rights,” Professor Amar’s focus is more correctly understood as what changes the Fourteenth Amendment and Reconstruction wrought — or should have wrought — in our understanding of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Professor Amar’s “refined incorporation” is perhaps the most coherent explanation yet, while his history of the drafting and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment is the most compelling argument for a limited judicial role in defining fundamental liberties. Easily accessible for practitioner and layperson alike, this book opens the door to a broader debate about the proper role of the judiciary in protecting these liberties.

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  3. E. Kunstler
    10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
    4.0 out of 5 stars
    Understanding the Bill of Rights, June 7, 2006
    E. Kunstler

    The The Bill of Rights by Akhil Reed Amar takes an original look at the Ten Amendments to the United States Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights. Amar, a professor at Yale University Law School, is one of the most respected constitutional scholars in the country.

    His study of the famed document brings him to conclusions that have previously been ignored or unheard of. The main thesis, that the Amendments were originally designed to protect the majority, rather than the rights of individuals and minorities, is not a common view, but he has substantial evidence and research to support this conclusion.

    A main focus in the book is the difference in the Bill of Rights before and after the era of Reconstruction and the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment. The role of Anti-federalism, which is a main contributor to the first Ten Amendments, is explained and elaborated on, as is Federalism and James Madison’s role in the shaping of the Constitution and its Amendments.

    Amar takes a clear stance on two issues, that the Amendments should be studied as a whole document and the great effect the Fourteenth Amendment had on the Bill of Rights. The book itself is split into two parts, one details the creation and history of the Bill of Rights, while the other details it after Reconstruction, the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and its change to having a role of protection of individuals and minorities.

    Understanding the Bill of Rights and its role in our country today is of great value and Amar’s The Bill of Rights appears to provide an accurate and informative guide.

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