Monday, May 16, 2016

McWilliams Reviews the Book for Tulsa Law Review

Susan McWilliams, Professor of Politics at Pomona College, reviews America's Forgotten Constitutions for the latest issue of the Tulsa Law Review.  She calls the book a "magisterial work...surely one of the most captivating works on American political thought and American constitutional history to be written in the last several years."  Professor McWilliams observes:
Tsai has a good eye for what makes for a good story, and he knows how to put that good story together.... The case studies are captivating, each on its own merits. Tsai could have merely walked through the narration of some of these stories and written a memorable book. For weeks after reading America’s Forgotten Constitutions, I badgered my friends and loved ones with accounts of Etienne Cabet’s Icaria, an attempted agrarian socialist republic made up mostly of French immigrants in the late 1840s and early 1850s.... I imagine that Tsai’s chapter on Icaria alone would make a valuable contribution to many courses and conversations about American political thought.... What is remarkable is that in this sense, the Icaria chapter is not exceptional within the book; all the case studies here beg for further study.
She goes on to consider the broader theoretical implications of the book:
Tsai may be at his most intellectually provocative when he is operating at the level of this kind of broad analysis, using his case studies and comparisons to venture some important thoughts about the traditions of American constitutional order in particular and the traditions of written constitutionalism and popular sovereignty more generally. That is what I take to be the third level of the story in America’s Forgotten Constitutions.... That there is a tradition of alternative constitution writing in the United States almost paradoxically demonstrates the strength of the standing constitutional order. This form of resistance to this Constitution is, oddly enough, also a form of reverence for its constitutionalism. It is subversion that should please the powers that be.
The entirety of Professor McWilliams's review can be found here.

Monday, February 8, 2016

My Reply to Aziz Rana's Book Review

The Texas Law Review has graciously agreed to publish my response to Professor Aziz Rana's thoughtful review of America's Forgotten Constitutions.  It can be downloaded from here.   A snippet from my response:
Nowhere in the book do I claim that American constitutional law, understood as an ideological and social practice, evolved in a way that was inevitable or predictable. Nor has the original ethical character of the U.S. Constitution simply been revealed over time.  To steal from King, I do not think that the moral arc of constitutional law "bends towards justice."...
While they are competitors in an important sense, in truth radicals need reformers.  The success of moderates playing within the system creates an opportunity for radicals, who can behave parasitically on reformers' efforts by engaging an already energized electorate. 
Professor Rana's original book review can be read here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Professor Aziz Rana Reviews America's Forgotten Constitutions for Texas Law Review

Professor Aziz Rana (Cornell Law) has reviewed America's Forgotten Constitutions for the Texas Law Review.  A snippet of that review:
The book is a remarkable feat of excavation, one that offers a much-needed corrective to the conventional histories of American constitutionalism—histories that deemphasize the vitality and importance of popular suspicion toward the federal Constitution. It thus enriches—quite dramatically—the current literature on contemporary constitutional opposition by implicitly placing today’s critics within a long-standing American struggle over the compatibility between existing institutional arrangements and classic principles of popular sovereignty, self-government, and self- authorization.... According to Tsai, the discursive tradition of American constitutionalism has been marked by many simultaneous projects of constitution writing. The Framers may have “unleashed” notions of popular sovereignty and written constitutionalism, but they could hardly control its direction in the hands of ordinary citizens.
The entire review can be found here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Professor Sophia Z. Lee's Review in the Journal of American History

Professor Sophia Z. Lee (Penn Law & History) reviews America's Forgotten Constitutions in the June 2015 issue of The Journal of American History:
Tsai offers an engaging series of eight chronologically progressive case studies .... Tsai’s second argument, [that, as the conventional sovereign developed, the available modes of dissenting constitutionalism shrank, becoming more expressive and less institutionalized], is a novel one that merits exploration.... His individual case studies also provide new dimensions to familiar tales (for example, postwar internationalists’ blueprint for a world government) and new tales (for instance, the black nationalist Republic of New Afrika’s claim to the Deep South). Historians of the groups that Tsai studies may find his analyses of their constitutions illuminating while historians of black nationalism, postwar internationalism, and contemporary white supremacism will find commendable primary source research on these subjects.
Read the full review (behind a pay wall) here.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Choice Reviews Recommends America's Forgotten Constitutions

Writing for Choice Reviews, H.J. Knowles of Skidmore College recommends America's Forgotten Constitutions:
As his subtitle indicates, Tsai (American Univ. Law School) brings the reader's attention to examples of popular constitutional pushback by groups who refused to worship the Constitution. In order to resolve societal shortcomings and crises of popular sovereignty they identified, these groups sought radical and idealistic salvation in the crafting of alternative constitutions. The book features examples from throughout American history--from the 1830s creation of the Republic of Indian Stream through the 2006 Aryan nation efforts to forge a new constitutional vision in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to painting rich portraits of those examples, Tsai makes useful observations about the conceptual similarities and differences among his case studies.... [The] volume admirably accomplishes its goal of spotlighting some of America's forgotten constitutions.
Recommended for general readers, graduate students, and research faculty.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Civil War Book Review's Take on America's Forgotten Constitutions

The Civil War Book Review has published a review of America's Forgotten Constitutions.  Professor Chris Barker finds the book "a very impressive, thought-provoking study of divergent forms of popular sovereignty."  Overall, he deems the historical case studies to be "uniformly insightful and even-handed" with the analysis "largely avoid[ing] clause-by-clause drudgery."

A couple of the reviewer's observations merit a brief response.  First, Professor Barker expresses concern that the account might "invite[] a degree of confusion about the legal status of the union" because I emphasize that the Founding began a project of creating one American political community.  But here I think he misunderstands my approach, which is concerned not with narrow questions of legality as such but with the broader process of making the revolutionary utterly conventional.  I never claim "uniform national citizenship" to be the Founders' original goal.  The Framers themselves used the terms "citizen," "people," and "person," throughout the debates and the resulting Constitution, revealing a desire to create a single political community (nation-state) and not merely a more effective government, while leaving the particulars of legal "citizenship" unresolved and in flux.  So I don't read "the 1787 Constitution as an ideologically dominating, exclusionary document," as Professor Barker suggests, but rather contend that some defenders of the Constitution (liberal nationalists and practitioners of ethical sovereignty) pushed the tradition and the concept of community in a thicker direction after the Founding.

Second, Professor Barker states that I see "no ethically transformative content to the Confederate vision."  This is too strong.  It is true that some slaveholders argued that slavery was a morally worthy institution.  These fire-eaters, whose ideas I discuss in the book, believed in the moral rightness of slavery just as fervently as abolitionists believed the practice to be spiritually bankrupt.  For these popular thinkers, secession represented an opportunity for moral restoration.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the Confederate Constitution: while slavery itself was preserved by that document, many stronger provisions--including those that would help keep the Confederacy pure and perpetual as a slaveholding republicwere rejected.  The moral dimensions of that vision were partially implemented at best.  This is why I ultimately believe that the Confederate Constitution is more aptly described as an example of cultural sovereigntyan exercise of racial nationalism, if you preferrather than an illustration of ethical sovereignty in action.  When we compare the actual features of that Constitution with other constitutions containing stronger religious or other ethical imperatives, it only reinforces the sense that the Confederate Constitution appears remarkably like the 1787 Constitution, with a few provisions altered to restore control over the political economy of slavery.  That American original, too, ended up a thinner exercise in self-governance, despite the fact that some proponents had stronger ideas of justice and virtue.

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.