In This Review

The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760–1840
The Words That Made Us: America’s Constitutional Conversation, 1760–1840
By Akhil Reed Amar
Basic Books, 2021, 832 pp.

With the rare ability to combine history and law, Amar takes a fresh, heterodox look at how “America became America.” Amar, a distinguished professor of law and political science, sees the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights as having simply “followed from the logic” of a sophisticated “constitutional conversation” carried out over three decades in letters, newspapers, pamphlets, and courtrooms by the mass of Americans (or at least white, male, and literate ones). That rolling dialogue, he argues, deserves more credit for the Declaration of Independence than does Thomas Jefferson (merely “a good scribe”) and made a bigger contribution to the Constitution than did James Madison. Scholars have erred in attaching importance to Madison’s essay “Federalist No. 10” (in The Federalist Papers), Amar claims; at the time of its publication, “almost no one paid any attention” to it. The only founder who really mattered, in Amar’s view, was the relatively silent George Washington: the Constitution was “designed by and for” him alone to such a degree that his two elections as president amounted to re-ratifications of it. Amar seamlessly combines his two disciplines, crafting a swiftly paced, highly iconoclastic narrative and making important legal arcana accessible to all readers.