Friday, January 30, 2015

The Harvard Law Review on America's Forgotten Constitutions

The editors of the Harvard Law Review have published this capsule review of America's Forgotten Constitutions:
Professor Tsai presents an octet of fascinating tales revolving around these alternative constitutions, drawn up by individuals (like radical abolitionist John Brown), factions (recent Aryan separatists in the Pacific Northwest), and even entire peoples (the early twentieth-century Cherokee Sequoyah movement). Rather than serving as discrete vignettes, the eight stories are interconnected, and, to an even greater degree, tied to the 1787 Constitution. Southern secessionists, for instance, borrowed almost everything but their categorical protection of slavery from the 1787 charter. All in all, Professor Tsai offers an enlightening, refreshing take on constitutional history that is accessible to legal veterans and newcomers alike.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Lessons from the Alt-Constitution

Brian Doherty has this provocative review of America's Forgotten Constitutions in the January 2015 issue of Reason.  Putting aside the fact that the reviewer has an obvious preference for a libertarian-conservative constitution (praising Hayek and damning the New Deal revolution), he does try to extract several lessons from my book about how to initiate constitutional change.

The advice he gives to libertarian reformers is: (1) find legal spaces to subvert the dominant political order; (2) avoid violence; (3) don't become obsessed with making cultural changes, which are difficult in a pluralistic society; and (4) keep your expectations low: don't expect that interfacing with an existing legal regime will produce results.  The combination of these lessons seems to support targeted nonviolent resistance of the legal order, coupled with non-overt forms of disaffiliation and alternative organization.

I think these are fair lessons to draw from my book, with the strong caveat that every episode in alternative lawmaking is a contingent event, with its own probabilities of success.  It also bears keeping in mind that one's tactical orientation will depend ultimately on one's goals, motivations, and substantive theories of law.  So I expect that someone with a different set of philosophical commitments can read my book and draw a slightly different set of lessons.  I do make some observations about tactics in the book, but they are general observations rather than fixed and universal guidelines for how to get things done.  For example, I don't say that violence never works (it obviously works under certain circumstances, not always in the way that it is intended, and there is always a price to be paid).  

It's fascinating to see what historical lessons and tactics for legal change seem most appealing to a disaffected libertarian, who views government as something that "does pretty much whatever it wants, under whatever excuse it pleases, and all too frequently gets away with it."  Achieving a minimal state, or at least arresting the growth of the modern administrative state, will take an openness to methods and a certain flexibility in making allies inside and outside the political system. 

The four lessons identified by Doherty don't exhaust the possible lessons from the case studies I discuss.  But they represent a thoughtful way to begin that conversation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Livestream of Today's 12 pm EST Book Talk at the National Archives

My book talk today in honor of Constitution Day at the National Archives will be carried on YouTube live here.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Talk and Signing at National Archives Sept. 18 12 p.m.

Please join me in the McGowan Theater of the National Archives September 18, at noon, for a book talk and signing.  The address is: 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20408.  Reserve a seat here.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Independence Day Book Review by the Daily Beast

Tom Arnold-Forster reviews America's Forgotten Constitutions for the Daily Beast:
America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community, by Robert L. Tsai, is a history of constitutions written instead and in place of the U.S. Constitution. Looking at a diverse group of “folk legal theorists” from the early nineteenth to the early twenty-first centuries, Tsai assembles a collection of eight alternatives to the federal republic imagined in 1787. It’s a nicely conceived book, with each “defiant vision” taking up a chapter. And it’s engaging to read: Tsai is a law professor but avoids legalese. He writes briskly but attentively.

He shows that “We the People” has been a problem from the start, and that much has hinged on exactly how plural the pronoun is thought to be....

Rather than dismissing these ideas as silly utopias, Tsai treats them as part of the American legal tradition. And the result is counterfactual in the best sense: an array of unfamiliar and unsettling ideas, which show that the “original meanings” of 1787 (or their malleable afterlife in a “living constitution”) are not the only ones to have existed....

So Tsai gives us a history “characterized by adaptation and reversal, innovation and regression, fragmentation and reorganization.” He suggests that the United States is less about stable liberalism and expanding freedom than aggressive democracy and applied power....his picture is far richer than the grim founder worship usually found in American political orthodoxy.

For Tsai’s constitution writers, the U.S. Constitution stands as an obligatory model, something they necessarily define themselves in relation to....And all, in the end, underline just how largely the Constitution figures in the American political imagination: less a charter of freedom than a document of power.
The full review can be found here.