America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, Random House, 2005
The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction by Akhil Reed Amar, Yale University Press, 1998
Recommended by Doug Braudaway
In the publishing world, these are older publications from a few years back, but I would recommend all Americans read both. Admittedly, these books appear to be more in the realm of government rather than history. However, I will count these are history because Amar takes the reader back to the 1780s and the philosophy and the language of the Founding Father generation to explain what the Constitution means (not what modern politicians say it means).
In America’s Constitution each chapter covers are large part of the Constitution; within each chapter are sections focusing on particular phrases, or words, in that section. The topics are large “three fifths,” “among the several States” and small “Provided that,” “No state shall.” It is amazing how much meaning was condensed into so few words.
In both books the footnote section is large. The reader can check them out if desired. A more useful part of the text of America’s Constitution is the text of the American Constitution annotated with the page numbers of the text where the author writes and analyzes that part of the Constitution. Basically, it is a good, quick reference guide.
The second book (which was published earlier) is exactly what the title suggests. It is an in depth explanation of the American Bill of Rights. But… The text does not address each amendment individually. The chapters address themes and ideas, each of which resulted in language added to the Bill of Rights as it was constructed. (There is one specific exception. Chapter 5 is “Juries.” I have frequently told my students that juries are arguably the most important part of the Constitution. There is much serious history and philosophy behind the concept.)
Both books are intended for the general reader. The philosophy, as explained by Amar, is not overbearing or overwhelming. Amar is the author of law journal pieces that are more technical (he has been an editor at the The Yale Law Journal); my favorite is a 1987 article called “Of Sovereignty and Federalism.” If the reader finishes these two books and wants more, Amar’s articles can be found online.
I would suggest that this pair of books be included on every American’s book shelf.