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.The full review can be found here.
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.
Friday, July 4, 2014
Tom Arnold-Forster reviews America's Forgotten Constitutions for the Daily Beast: