Saturday, October 9, 2010

Book review: The Citizen's Constitution by Seth Lipsky

Some of the most insightful books are written by outsiders, by people with no particular training or formal position regarding the subject matter of their study.  These outsiders bring a fresh perspective and while they may not have a tutored eye, their lack of formal training allows them to perceive things that those within the guild of scholars often miss.  One such outsider is journalist Seth Lipsky.  An accomplished editor and reporter, Lipsky's annotated guide to the United States Constitution is brimming with historical insight and contemporary wit.  It is well worth a read.

Lipsky's approach to his commentary is to provide a preface explaining his general method and then to walk the reader through the text of the Constitution itself, methodically explaining its various provisions.  Lipsky provides detailed, line by line exposition on both the main text of the Constitution and the Amendments.  His review of the Bill of Rights is worth the price of the book itself, but his telling comments on the main text of the Constitution serve as the real eye-opener.  Oftentimes the Constitution's articles, the original components of the Constitution prior to the enactment of the Amendments,  are overlooked.  In law school the articles are often relegated to a very boring course that focusing on the Constitution's structural scheme of government, while the contemporary and interesting policy-oriented discussions are saved for the courses on criminal procedure, the Bill of Rights, and civil rights.

Lipsky eschews this approach to the articles of the Constitution, mining the historical record to demonstrate not only the critical importance of the Constitution's articles to the Founding generation, but also the contemporary importance of those articles as well.  The main text of the Constitution shines in Lipsky's commentary as a relevant and vital component not simply to the structure of American government but to the scheme of liberty conceived of by the Framers.

And Lipsky is very interested in providing context to the Constitution by looking at the writings of those Framers and defenders of the Constitution who wrote during the Founding period.  Quotations from The Federalist are provided, not as proof-texts but as vehicles to understand the concerns that lead to the adoption of specific provisions within the Constitution.  Washington, Jefferson and Marshall all make appearances within Lipsky's text as well.

What is particularly refreshing about Lipsky's approach is that he doesn't simply quote those who supported the Constitution, he also includes discussion of those Americans who opposed the ratification of the Constitution.  Lipsky spends time to introduce the reader to the arguments of the anti-federalists and to explain their concerns about the governmental centralization that they feared lurked in the Constitution's text.   His presentation of the anti-federalists' arguments concerning the Necessary and Proper Clause is one of the finest overviews of the basic anti-federalist position that I have ever read.  And it is contained in two moderately-sized paragraphs.  Once the reader is finished with Lipsky's commentary, he or she will have a grasp of the basic arguments of both sides in the ratification debate.

Lipsky's guide isn't just a history book..  Although he provides copious historical references and examples in his commentary, Lipsky also ties in the rich constitutional jurisprudence that has developed since the ratification of the Constitution, providing focused discussions of key cases on a multitude of issues, including such important Supreme Court decisions as Barron v. Baltimore, Dred Scot, Gideon v. Wainright, Mormon Church v. United States, Plessey v. Fergusson, Hamdan, and D.C. v. Heller. Lipsky's readings of the relevant jurisprudence is almost always concise and thought-provoking.  For example, his discussion of Dred Scot immediately zeroes in on the core of Chief Justice Taney's analysis of Scot's standing to sue for his freedom in the federal courts.  His understanding of the evolutionary development within lines of case law shines in his presentation on the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure requirements, demonstrating a sophistication in just two pages of commentary that is lacking in most law school casebooks. 

There are a number of guides and commentaries available to our Constitution.  However, none of them have the combination of brevity and thoroughness that Lipsky's guide provides.  It is a delightful text, one that can please both the professional scholar or lawyer while at the same time appealing to the common citizen who wants to know more about the fundamental charter that empowers and governs our general government.  Seth Lipsky has done yeoman's service in providing such a delightful and rich overview of our Constitution.  Get a copy and keep it close by on the bookshelf.  You will find yourself turning to it time and time again.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks, Mark!

Mark in Spokane said...

You're welcome!

Pinky said...

Do you get a commission?

I have to buy that book.

Mark in Spokane said...

No, I don't get a commission (unfortunately!).

And yes, you should get that book!